Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra, written in 2002, transmits a magical portrait of a large, modern orchestra in a rich variety of colors, textures, rhythms and harmonic density. It seems to hail from an exotic (but friendly) planet across the galaxy, presenting a world both familiar and completely new. During louder passages in our two rehearsals of it thus far, I felt my insides vibrating, happily receiving its fresh and often impish message. The Columbus Symphony will be performing this piece this Saturday and Sunday, April 18 and 19.
Concerto for Orchestra is deftly orchestrated, as it should be, with lots of idiomatic writing for solo instruments and sections, in a playful style and form strongly reminiscent of Bela Bartok's iconic masterpiece of the same name.
Higdon's harmonic language uses whole tone scales mixed with modes to create a French sounding effervescence, and also infusing a magical quality into the music. She uses this mercurial lightness to great extent in almost rapturous passages which sound inspired by the orchestral music of Olivier Messiaen, another other worldly composer. She even indicates "mystical" and (in rehearsal today) "magical" for the style of the third movement. Many of the themes are hauntingly alluring.
Dissonances are so richly textured that they become simply dense colors rather than "wrong" sounding notes. Tonal melody can be heard through this thick haze of notes, but often only vaguely. Yet, despite the density of sound, balance is not much of an issue, an indicator of effective orchestral writing. Also, though fairly difficult music to play, it does not come across as a struggle for anyone in the orchestra.
Though much of the five movement work uses strong, repeated rhythms, either alone or under melodies and counterpoint, many intimate ensemble passages convey a jazzy freedom. In such cases, each part seems to have a mind of its own, chatting with and around the others.
Technically, the first movement has one passage written into the stratosphere of the clarinet range. I've never played a double high C in an orchestral piece. (I have played Ginastera Danses Concertantes on C clarinet, which then goes up to a double high B)
But the writing is such that it's not unnatural to go up that high. The fingerings came somewhat easily (we often have to invent fingerings that high), and the style of this particular lick, a sfumando run, up in smoke, lends itself to the vagueness of such high writing. (Tuning up there often involves some luck.) Yet, since the flutes are also playing in the same range, the passage is not damaged by playing it down an octave, which I think the Atlanta Symphony did in their recording.
Overall, I am enjoying getting to know this relatively new work for orchestra. It is a nice balance of challenge and reward.
The young and highly touted conductor from Mexico, Alondra de la Parra has done well putting this all together so far, rehearsing intricate spots and transitional passages enough to give them a comfortable feel. Maestra de la Parra seems to understand the effervescent requirements of Higdon's music, and is choosing tempos to that effect, though there were occasions where her intentions did not translate into effective stick commands. Overall, this young conductor seems unhindered by the masculine tradition of conductors, and her dynamism and verve on the podium convey a natural excitement for the music.