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Higdon Hard

Musical innovation is a creative obligation, but composer doesn't believe it must be a trial by ordeal for listeners.

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Over the past decade Jennifer Higdon has become one of the most frequently performed modern classical composers, with a body of work that both challenges musicians and engages audiences. Her work has been commissioned by world-renowned orchestras (including those in Philadelphia, Chicago and Atlanta) and cutting-edge small ensembles such as the University of Richmond's artists-in-residence, eighth blackbird.

Other commitments will prevent Higdon's attendance when the Richmond Symphony performs her Concerto for Orchestra on March 20 and 21, but she will be leading a conducting workshop as composer in residence for the Richmond-based Conductors Guild on Jan. 26-28. She also will be the keynote speaker at the Art Works for Virginia conference Jan. 27. Her topic? “Roll Over Beethoven” — it's time to give new music a chance, especially if it is innovative.

“It's interesting that people would associate any kind of innovation with difficulty in listening,” Higdon says. “I think that's false. [It's] something that people who are having problems getting their music heard use as a reason.” Higdon, who makes a living from commissioned composing, doesn't need an excuse. In a field famous for prodigies, she was a relative latecomer. She started playing the flute at 15, took her first formal music instruction at 18 and attended her first class in composition at 21. She cites peers among her inspirations, but also the Beatles, Alison Krauss and the Dixie Chicks. “I didn't grow up on classical music,” Higdon says, “and I think composers are influenced by everything they hear, including things they don't care for.”

Inevitably she has her detractors, who think the approachable beauty of her layered melodies is too easy and accessible to be deep. Higdon scoffs at the notion. She prides herself on writing demanding parts for virtuosos such as Hillary Hahn, who recently performed her Violin Concerto in Nashville. “Ask the performers. … They've coined a term for it, Higdon hard.” 

But there are limits. “The trick to doing that is making sure that the music fits well on the instrument, so they are not struggling against the mechanics. If you make them feel it is a worthwhile experience they are willing to do the work.” She takes particular delight in writing prominent parts for musicians who often labor in anonymous support, like tuba and oboe players, and percussionists.

In the end, Higdon says, the goal is communicating with the audience in a way that demands craft but not compromise. “I stack a lot of [musical] lines,” she says, “But I've found that you can do a lot harmonically as long as people have a sense of where they are in the rhythm.” Her work has been called neo-romantic and post-minimalist, but she has little interest in labels. 

“The biggest thing is that the music be good music,” Higdon says. “No matter what language you write it in.” S

Higdon will be the keynote speaker at the Art Works for Virginia Conference on Jan. 27 at the Richmond Marriott, 500 E. Broad St. at 9:30 a.m. For registration, go to vaforarts.org. She also will be the composer in residence at the Conductors Guild conductor workshop with the Richmond Symphony on Jan. 26-28 at CenterStage at 600 E. Grace St. For information and registration, call 553-1378 or go to conductorsguild.com.

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