Composer Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto is this year's Pultizer Prize winner for music.
Composer Jennifer Higdon's Violin Concerto is this year's Pultizer Prize winner for music. Candace DiCarlo
Hilary Hahn, violin
Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Vasily Petrenko, conductor
Philadelphia-based composer Jennifer Higdon won the Pulitzer Prize for music with her Violin Concerto Monday. The 30-minute work received its world premiere on Feb. 6, 2009, by violinist Hilary Hahn with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mario Venzano.
Pulitzer officials described the concerto as "a deeply engaging piece that combines flowing lyricism with dazzling virtuosity."
Higdon wrote the concerto for Hahn, whom she first met about 10 years ago when the young violinist attended Higdon's class in 20th-century music at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she teaches composition studies.
"I'm humbled and honored to get the prize," Higdon said in a phone interview Monday. "But I'm really fortunate to work with such great musicians. Hilary really makes it sing on the instrument."
Besides Hahn, the concerto was commissioned by four orchestras: The Baltimore, Toronto and Indianapolis Symphonies, plus the orchestra at the Curtis Institute.
A Tailor-Made Concerto
"For me, composing a concerto is like constant discovery," Higdon said immediately following the premier. "You're trying to find out what other concertos do, and you look at the person you are writing for, and you can kind of tailor-make it."
A perfect example, Higdon says, is the concerto's first movement, titled "1726" (the street address of Curtis). The opening of the concerto uses harmonics, a technique Higdon heard while listening to Hahn's recording of the Violin Concerto by Arnold Schoenberg.
"It was a leap of inspiration," she said.
She says she thought much about Hahn's individual tone while she was composing the second movement, "Chaconni." She loved both Hahn's low and high notes.
"It's the extremes," Higdon says. "The whole focus of the second movement is the beauty of tone."
The final movement, "Fly Forward," was inspired by Hahn's fleet fingers — and, Higdon says, the Olympics.
"I realized I was working on this when we were approaching the Olympics," she says. "You know the track and field events where they are running across the tape at the end? That last movement moves very fast, so you have to imagine Hilary flying forward across the racing tape at the end of the race."
A Composer On The Rise
Higdon's music is getting better and better known. She now receives more than two hundred performances a year of her works. After Monday's announcement, that number is likely to rise. Her orchestral work Blue Cathedral is one of the most performed contemporary orchestral works in the U.S. It's been played by more than 200 orchestras since it premiered in 2000.
Conductor Marin Alsop says she's also a Higdon fan.
"Her music is evocative and understandable," Alsop wrote in an essay for NPR. "Her willingness to communicate with audiences and her openness to musicians' comments is extremely refreshing. 'Accessible' is often a dirty word in the world of art, but Jennifer embraces the concept and explains that a major priority for her is to give listeners a sense of grounding and a feel for where they are in her compositions."
Higdon says she found out that she had won the Pulitzer after noticing that she suddenly had a lot of messages on her cell phone.
"I jumped up and down a little," she says. And how is the composer planning to celebrate her win?
"I'm going to attend my students' composition concert tonight at Curtis — and try not to steal any of their thunder," she says.
That might be difficult.