Marin Alsop On Composer Jennifer Higdon Marin Alsop says she can't remember the first time she met composer Jennifer Higdon, and both simply believe they've always known each other. Oddly, the two women have never had a conversation about gender in the classical-music world — that is, until now. Higdon's Violin Concerto is set to be performed by Hilary Hahn next month.
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Jennifer Higdon And Me: A Musical Friendship

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Jennifer Higdon And Me: A Musical Friendship

Jennifer Higdon And Me: A Musical Friendship

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Bach, Britten, Copeland, Haydn, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Vivaldi - what do these guys have in common? From A to Z - or B to V, in any case - the halls of classical music are lined by the busts of men. But in June, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop, will premiere a work by Jennifer Higdon called "Violin Concerto."

Now, is a woman conducting a contemporary woman composer's work remarkable? Let's find out. Joining us to talk about this whole idea is the composer, Jennifer Higdon, who teaches music at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Thanks very much.

Ms. JENNIFER HIGDON (Composer): Pleasure to be here.

SIMON: And of course, our friend, Marin Alsop, who's music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Thank you for being with us.

Ms. MARIN ALSOP (Music Director, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra): Great to see you again.

SIMON: And how remarkable is this?

Ms. ALSOP: Well, you know, to us - I don't want to speak for Jennifer - but I mean, I think the issue of gender is one that when you're the subject you rarely think about. It's only other people who seem to think about it. But of course, taking a step backward, it is quite unusual still to see a woman on the podium of a major orchestra performing a work by a woman composer.

And I was asking Jennifer, we know each other for years but we haven't really ever spoken about this issue. So this is the first time we have an opportunity to talk about it. And what do you think, Jennifer?

Ms. HIGDON: You know, I guess it is a little bit unusual. I'm always so focused on my art, I don't really sit around thinking about it - until someone asks.

Ms. ALSOP: You know, there are so many more women composers these days, yet their work doesn't seem to surface at the highest level of being integrated into the major subscription series of major orchestras. And why is that, Jennifer?

Ms. HIGDON: I don't know if it has to do with the people who are programming the concerts or if it happens to be a situation where the soloists who are carrying pieces around are maybe more familiar with male composers than they are women. Because often in the programming process there's a discussion that goes on between the artistic administrator, the conductor, and whoever is standing at the front of the orchestra, the soloist.

So it might just be a matter of educating those who are making the decisions about putting pieces on in the first place.

SIMON: I gather the two of you met at a music festival?

Ms. ALSOP: Yeah. We first worked together…

SIMON: Not Woodstock.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ALSOP: No, that's where you and I met, don't you remember?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: It's coming back to me now.

Ms. ALSOP: I know, it's a haze. But no, I invited Jennifer to my festival in Santa Cruz, the Cabrillo Music Festival, which is all contemporary music. And since then I think you've come every other year, if not every year practically.

Ms. HIGDON: Right.

Ms. ALSOP: Yeah, and you know, gradually we just started - I started programming. I mean, that's how it happens for a conductor. You know, I'm attracted to a piece of music. Either I've seen the score or heard a recording and I think, oh wow, this music, you know, really excites me and speaks to me personally. And then I fall in love with the music and then I - eventually I usually meet the composer.

And you know, often - I mean, Jennifer's so easygoing, down to Earth, but her music is not, I wouldn't call it easygoing at all. You know, it's really demanding and very, I think it's very authoritative, which is not an adjective I'd use to describe you initially anyway.

SIMON: I can't think of a better introduction to your music. Let's listen, if we could, to a bit of Jennifer Higdon's "Percussion Concerto."

(Soundbite of "Percussion Concerto")

SIMON: That's Marin Alsop conducting the London Philharmonic and Jennifer Higdon's composition. That's very authoritative, isn't it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HIGDON: It sounds a little bit like what my dinner table discussions used to be like with my parents, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ALSOP: So you're working those through. I see what's going on.

Ms. HIGDON: Exactly.

SIMON: And speaking as a conductor, what makes her music distinct?

Ms. ALSOP: Well, I think for me the first component is this - and it's clear in the "Percussion Concerto" - that's pretty obvious - but throughout her music there's a rhythmic drive and propulsion to it. And that always appeals to me. You know, I think that's a hallmark really of our American style of music, that there's an immediacy and almost a dance-like quality to the music.

But also Jennifer's music, she doesn't shy away from writing beautiful melodies. And sometimes, often actually, her music is referred to as accessible, which, you know, in art can often be a dirty word. But I think…

SIMON: Means everybody can understand it.

Ms. ALSOP: Yeah, God forbid.

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. ALSOP: Right. But Jennifer and I were talking about that concept, and you say that's a good thing.

Ms. HIGDON: Yeah, I actually consider it the ultimate compliment. I think of music as a communicative art. Most art is, but there's something about music that goes straight to a person's heart or has the ability to do that. So accessible to me means that you're doing your job as a composer. And I think about that a lot when I'm writing.

SIMON: We have a pretty good example of that, I'm told. Let's listen to a section from your composition, "Blue Cathedral."

(Soundbite of "Blue Cathedral")

Ms. HIGDON: Beautiful piece, isn't it?

SIMON: Utterly majestic.

Ms. HIGDON: You know, it is a bit of a tone poem. And I love melody, and it just, somehow in this piece it all kind of comes together. And this was probably one of my early successes. This may have actually launched a lot of stuff for me.

Ms. ALSOP: I think - weren't you telling me almost - it's been programmed by over 200 orchestras.

Ms. HIGDON: Right.

Ms. ALSOP: That's quite a testament to a new piece.

SIMON: You know, we quite agreeably get to talk to Marin every few weeks and treasure the opportunity. But I must say, we don't get to talk to a lot of composers…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: So while you're both sitting here…

Ms. ALSOP: Yeah.

SIMON: …does it happen when you're - I'm not sure breaking in is the phrase I mean - but breaking in, for a lack of a better one, a new piece, do you ever say to the conductor, oh no, that's wrong?

Ms. HIGDON: You know, I think at one point we had a funny experience. We were premiering my "Soprano Sax Concerto," we were trying to figure out how to get the strings quieter, and Marin turned and said how about putting all the mutes on? And it just came out of my mouth - I was like, oh no. Not the color I want. She was like, oh, okay. It doesn't happen very often though.

Ms. ALSOP: That's not how I remember it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ALSOP: No. I would say though that there is some give and take, that as you're working on a brand new piece there are things that the composer's going to change inevitably in the rehearsal, that some balance issue doesn't work or they want a different effect.

I'd say the first thing that gets changed most frequently, and in Jennifer's music, are the dynamics. Whether it's loud or soft in a particular place, where a crescendo builds. And often, I think, also the tempo marking, that when a composer's hearing something in his or head, you know, it seems to go one tempo, but then when you hear it live - am I right?

Ms. HIGDON: And every single experience I've ever had with a piece, I always have the tempo too high. It's like I have an ideal sound of an ideal ensemble in an ideal hall. And it changes dramatically when you get into a live situation. And as a composer, I actually find it fascinating to watch the orchestra and the conductor to put their imprint on the piece.

Because I'm handing over - basically it's a script for a play and they bring a certain experience and knowledge to it, and that's really important for me. I like them to kind of put their thumbprint on the experience. The tempo is a big thing for me. I've never nail the tempo, ever.

(Soundbite of "Soprano Sax Concerto")

Ms. ALSOP: I also love to watch the musicians then interacting with Jennifer on the break, you know, talking to her about the part and whether this, maybe this leap is a little tough. I mean, you're very comfortable with that, aren't you?

Ms. HIGDON: Absolutely, because I've been on the other side where I've been having to play something new and I found that something wasn't written well for my instrument. And so I want to learn from the musicians. And I always go back and I will adjust something, if it makes it better as a performance in the piece and the comfort level of the musicians. Because I found if the musicians are convinced, they do a convincing performance, and that means everything for me.

Ms. ALSOP: I think the moment when we say that is the moment of the concert. Because at that moment the composer has nothing to say. It's all in our realm. And whether we make a convincing go of it or not is really up to us at that point. So I feel very fortunate that the composers are not allowed to stand up and scream during a concert.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HIGDON: It's safer for everyone.

SIMON: What is it like for you to sit there?

Ms. HIGDON: You know, it's funny. The sounds come out of my head and I still have this reaction when I hear them. Like, did I write that? It's thrilling, it's terrifying, and I have to admit it's like watching something come into magnificent three-dimensional Technicolor.

SIMON: Do you go to sleep with music in your head? Do you get up and hear it?

Ms. HIGDON: Twenty-four hours a day. It doesn't stop, actually. And when I'm working on a piece with an orchestra, that particular piece stays present constantly in my head, even in my dreams, which can be a little bit haunting.

SIMON: I'll bet. You really have to like it, don't you?

Ms. ALSOP: You're going to have to see somebody about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HIGDON: I've discovered that iPods are very valuable to kind of balance that sort of thing, to try to get something else into my head. But yeah, the music stays. In fact, I have to be careful when I cross the street. Occasionally I've stepped out into traffic because I was listening to something in my head.

SIMON: Well, thank you both very much for being with us. Jennifer Higdon, a composer. She also teaches music at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Marin Alsop, of course, musical director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and in June to be as so conducted by Maestro Alsop, will premiere Ms. Higdon's "Violin Concerto."

And by the way, you can read Marin Alsop's essay about Jennifer Higdon and hear more of Ms. Higdon's music on our Web site,

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