eighth blackbird / Robert Spano

Jennifer Higdon: On a Wire

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It's increasingly clear that orchestras themselves are emerging as the most effective marketing vehicle for contemporary large-scale orchestral compositions, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has taken the lead in this regard with its ASO Media label and a vigorous commissioning program complete with the creation of a so-called "Atlanta School" of composers. Such moves may seem a bit calculating, but it's hard to argue with positive results like those achieved here. American composer Jennifer Higdon deserves the wide recognition she has received; she is one of the few among her peers to thread the needle that knits connections between academic approval (she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010) and popularity among ordinary concertgoers. This disc, containing Higdon's composition On a Wire, might serve as a good introduction to her work. It's sort of a symphonic-sized concerto grosso, with the sextet eighth blackbird set against the full orchestra, including a large percussion section. Higdon generates a varied and energetic collection of textures from this, breaking up both the orchestra and the sextet into smaller groups (the sextet's members get individual solo passages and also play in various combinations). As the title implies, there's a good deal of tension in wondering where the great assemblage of musicians is going to go next, but Higdon's handling of everything is assured; her trademark imaginative orchestration is on full view here. Michael Gandolfi's Q.E.D.: Engaging Richard Feynman, for chorus and large orchestra, is a bit less clearly focused in this presentation: it was originally accompanied by video excerpts of the famous physicist's talks, but those are not presented here; instead you get settings of poems that relate tangentially to what Feynman said. But the album, with fine engineering, is well worth the money for anyone interested in Higdon or in new models for promoting contemporary composition.

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