Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon knows what audiences expect when trombones and tubas take the spotlight during an orchestral performance. Sound loud enough to raise the rafters. Heroic swagger and glittering declamation. Solemn nobility, perhaps, with a hint of impending doom. Or maybe some faintly comic lumbering. Dancing hippos, anyone?
Some of those qualities may pop up in the world premiere of Higdon’s Low Brass Concerto, a CSO commission to be conducted by Music Director Riccardo Muti on Feb. 1-3 (and to be performed on the CSO’s upcoming East Coast tour). But the American composer, whose extensive catalog includes several concertos for a wide range of solo instruments, was after something different in her commission for a concerto featuring two tenor trombones, bass trombone and tuba.
In October 2016, Higdon flew to Chicago, from her home in Philadelphia, to meet with the CSO’s low brass section: Jay Friedman, principal trombone; Michael Mulcahy, trombone; Charles Vernon, bass trombone, and Gene Pokorny, principal tuba. “They’re great guys; they were a lot of fun to talk to,” she said. “We sat down and really discussed, believe it or not, what they would like in a concerto. Because when you’re writing a piece for someone, you can tailor it for that player. They had a list of things. They gave me a DVD of recitals they had done, which helped a lot.”
Higdon also heard the CSO in Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition, a work that prominently features the orchestra’s brass section. ”This was amazing, a complete coincidence,” she said. “It was a great way to really hear the brass.”
A few weeks later, she held a similar meeting with the low brass players of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which co-commissioned the concerto. According to Higdon, players at both orchestras asked her for the same, unusual, element.
“They said, ‘We can play beautifully. We can play soft.’ They wanted some lyrical material,” she said. “They wanted the audience to hear the beauty of what they can do. They also said, ‘We want music that has serious depth, that isn’t just dancing hippo or dancing elephant music,’ which is the kind of music people expect them to play. So I thought about the beauty of the instruments, and I also thought about the power of the instruments. I tried to build on just those two concepts.”
Higdon also dispensed with mutes, those devices that brass players stuff into the bells of their instruments to create a thinner, buzzy sound. “I didn’t use mutes at all,” she said. “I just thought, ‘Let’s just write music for the sake of music.’ “
The concerto opens with the brass quartet in a slow, quiet passage unaccompanied by the orchestra. Approximately 17 minutes long with no breaks between the slow and fast movements, the piece also includes duets and trios for the featured low brass. “I tried to do a mix of everyone playing together,” said Higdon, “duets and then solos for each of the players.”
The Low Brass Concerto marks Higdon’s downtown CSO debut. During the Ravinia Festival’s 2004 season, the CSO performed her short, rambunctious Loco, one of several train-inspired works commissioned for the park’s 100th anniversary. In 2009, also at Ravinia, the CSO performed her Concerto 4-3, a piece with a tinge of bluegrass that also featured several soloists, in this case, three string players: two violins and bass. Christoph Eschenbach conducted both performances.
Higdon isn’t much interested in the harsh dissonances and disjunctive structure typical of much 20th century classical music. Her Violin Concerto, a 2009 work for soloist Hilary Hahn that won the Pulitzer Prize, is edgy but not assaultive. Its crisp, inventive melodies go off in unpredictable, but ultimately harmonious, directions.
Born in Brooklyn, but reared in Atlanta and Tennessee, Higdon, 55, speaks with a lingering Southern lilt. Friendly and approachable, she nonetheless has forged her own path from an early age. Her father was a freelance visual artist, and she describes her parents as “hippies” who exposed her and her brother to Atlanta’s cutting-edge cinema, art and theater scenes. Classical music wasn’t high on the family’s agenda; she wrote short stories and made 8mm films as a youngster. But somehow Higdon became enamored of the flute. She taught herself how to play and won the prized spot as principal flute in the marching band of Heritage High School, Maryville, Tenn.
“I loved marching band so much, I just loved playing,” she said. “I started out in flute performance, but my flute teacher got me started on composing: I must have said something about that at some point.”
Higdon did her undergraduate work at Bowling Green University in Ohio and earned master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Pennsylvania. She also earned an artist’s certificate in composition from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she currently holds a chair in composition.
An admitted “late starter,” Higdon faced multiple naysayers during her early years in music, especially when she decided to focus on composing. “People were like ‘no way you’re going to make a living at this,’ ” she said. “That was the thing I was hearing the most. While I was in school I made the decision to try to freelance compose, which basically made everyone flip out. My teachers were definitely not happy with me about that one. It was fairly rough going in the early days, but then I started winning competitions, and people just started asking me for pieces. That happened when I was still in grad school.”
Higdon also battled against aesthetic headwinds in her student years. In the 1980s, most music schools emphasized a strict focus on atonal, dissonant music. Students like Higdon, more interested in tonal music, were considered renegades.
“There was a lot of pressure when I was in school,” she said. “I took a lot of grief for not following the path they thought I should go on. They said, ‘You’re not advancing music if you’re not writing atonally.’ But I grew up in an artistic household, and my dad always said you had to question everything. You don’t have to do a certain thing in art; that’s not the way art works. So that was my attitude; I was a fairly independent thinker.”
Despite her teachers’ warnings, Higdon has become one of classical music’s busiest composers. She has a hefty catalog of completed works and several pieces, including a chamber opera and several concertos, in the pipeline. Her first opera, Cold Mountain, based on the 1997 novel by Charles Frazier, had its world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera in 2015.
With commissions arriving in a steady stream, Higdon has the luxury of writing in her own, authentic voice for top-flight soloists like Hilary Hahn and ensembles like Chicago’s Eighth Blackbird and the CSO.
“For me, the challenge in this Low Brass Concerto was just writing beautiful lines that go well together without any extraneous sound effects,” she said. “To write what I think is engaging music.”
Wynne Delacoma is a Chicago-based arts journalist and lecturer.