Jennifer Koh / Robert Spano / Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Jennifer Higdon: The Singing Rooms

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American composer Jennifer Higdon's breakthrough came in 2002 with her Concerto for Orchestra, a work that attracted the widespread admiration of working symphonic musicians and led to mushrooming performances of her music both within and beyond the U.S. It's no wonder: Higdon's handling of orchestral instruments is flattering indeed to musicians who adequately execute them. Here the composer takes on an especially tricky challenge: The Singing Rooms is a work for violin, chorus, and orchestra, with the violin generally not in a soloistic role, but first among a group of instruments featured in what the 18th century would have called concertante roles. The work sets an unrelated group of poems by Jeanne Minahan, not entirely convincingly joined together under the "singing rooms" rubric. "This is a house where the violin sings, the choir sings, and the orchestra sings. Every room is its own sound world. Not an ordinary house, this is the house that we all inhabit: that of life," Higdon enigmatically wrote. Moreover, listeners will need the booklet texts to understand the words; it's not clear whether the failure here lies with Telarc's vaunted engineers or with the equally highly regarded Atlanta Symphony Chorus. The textures of the work, however, are extremely compelling. The choir intones the short lines of Minahan's poetry in long, chorale-like melodies. One poem is set twice, at the beginning and end. The long lines seem to atomize into orchestral details, illustrating ideas in the text at a very subtle level, with the violin charting its own clearly identifiable course. A chief attraction is the completion of the program with two more choral-orchestral works that complement Higdon's piece beautifully: the slightly big band-tinged PraiseMaker (a secular work despite its title) of Alvin Singleton, and Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy, whose title is butchered in the track list. Recommended despite several glitches for the sheer sensuous pleasure of Higdon's orchestral writing.

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