Philly composer Jennifer Higdon's new concerto didn't come easy - but they never do

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Philadelphia composer Jennifer Higdon (in silver tunic) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the world premiere on Feb. 1 of her ‘Low Brass Concerto.’ The Philadelphia Orchestra performs it Feb. 22-24.

Another day. Another concerto?

Philadelphia composer Jennifer Higdon is producing them at a rate that’s unprecedented since the 18th-century era of Vivaldi — and in configurations even Vivaldi never tried in his 500 or so such works. On Thursday, her Low Brass Concerto has its Philadelphia Orchestra premiere, to be followed by the March 16 world premiere of her Tuba Concerto in Pittsburgh and her  Harp Concerto premiere May 12 in Rochester, N.Y.

Though the templates for each concerto couldn’t be more different, they share Higdon’s same foxhole prayer: “Oh, lordy, don’t let me screw this up.”

Writing them has obviously been a feat of time management, each one requiring four months or so, depending on interruptions. But midwifing them is an even less certain road.  Rehearsal time is short. Even with the prestige of recently winning two Grammy Awards (one for her Viola Concerto and another for the disc it was on, All Things Majestic), she doesn’t get artistic control over how a piece is performed.

“Sometimes, I take a very Zenlike approach. Otherwise, I would lose my mind,” Higdon said the other day by phone from her Spruce Street studio.  “As a composer … all the say that I have has to be on that page. … Stravinsky was big on controlling things. But you have to allow musicians to do their job.”

Camera icon Todd Rosenberg
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s “Low Brass Concerto” featured Jay Friedman (trombone), Michael Mulcahy (trombone), Charles Vernon (bass trombone), and Gene Pokorny (tuba).

Though Higdon’s placid on the surface, nothing feels easy to her. Ever since her composing career took off in 2000 with the orchestral work blue cathedral that put her among the most-performed American composers, her distinctive ear for sound has caused her ancillary anxiety. She was so unsure of blue cathedral she asked to conduct the first rehearsal herself.

Her 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning Violin Concerto and her grand opera Cold Mountain were relatively easy sailing. But with some other pieces, she has left dress rehearsals sending discreet but alarmed emails to friends, only to have the performances go far better than she’d ever hoped. Higdon’s concerto count is ambiguous – 13? 14? – because she withdrew her 2005 Trombone Concerto, ultimately deciding that it wasn’t fixable.

You’d be anxious, too. Around that same time, she wrote her Piano Concerto for Lang Lang, but he declined to perform it. It was later premiered by Yuja Wang.

The new Low Brass Concerto raises questions that no other major work has had to address: The soloists are instruments whose sound is usually embedded in the orchestra’s foundation. Can they properly be heard above the orchestra?

The players project hearty bravado at the prospect of moving from the rear of the stage to the front-and-center position. “I doubt my colleagues know what the back of my head looks like,” said Philadelphia Orchestra bass trombonist Blair Bollinger. “We low brass are capable of sounding above the whole orchestra when sitting in the back. We should have no trouble being heard when standing up front!”

‘You have to jump off the cliff’

What Higdon most fears as a composer is the part she writes last, such as the crucial opening of her Violin Concerto – a medium that has inspired the greatest works of Beethoven and Brahms. “It can be crippling, completely crippling,” she said. “But you have to jump off the cliff, even when it looks really high.”

Adding to the pressure, most of her pieces have three or more co-commissioning institutions.

Though Higdon couldn’t be in better hands in the Philadelphia Low Brass Concerto performances this week with conductor Cristian Măcelaru (a particularly able problem solver), her collaborator this month for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra world premiere was the imposing Riccardo Muti.

Muti, now 76, was the Philadelphia Orchestra music director when the Tennessee-raised Higdon arrived in Philadelphia in 1986 to study at the University of Pennsylvania and the Curtis Institute. He has never been a huge champion of new music. So premiering the Low Brass Concerto and touring it to New York’s Carnegie Hall was a great vote of confidence, though not one that allowed Higdon to catch up on her sleep.

Muti had studied the piece thoroughly. “I could tell by the way he was shaping the lines,” said Higdon. He was also singing instrumental lines from memory during rehearsal.

The piece has four soloists – two trombones, bass trombone, and tuba, often working as a single entity – that Muti decided would sit on stage rather than stand. That hardly alleviated Higdon’s worry about the soloists being heard.

At the Chicago premiere, tempos weren’t what she wanted, yet the piece found itself between there and the Carnegie Hall performance last Friday.  “It was heaven,”  Higdon said.

Critic Nancy Malitz of ChicagoOntheAisle.com heard performances in both cities, and agreed.  “The super quick call-and-response between the sections – which Higdon likes to write – were less accurately achieved in Chicago,” Malitz said in an email. “Carnegie Hall took it to a new level.”

The ‘Cold Mountain’ cure

More Higdon concertos — and the anxiety that comes with them — are on the way. Even after the two others are premiered this spring, she has offers for more.

Concertos aren’t her whole life, though. They’re just what gets the most publicity. Higdon is also starting work on a chamber opera, and she writes for all media, including concert band. In Chicago, a contingent of high school students from Joliet, Ill., were on the top balcony, cheering her on as fans of  her band works.

Future compositions, though, may have fundamental differences from the ones written before 2015’s Cold Mountain. Higdon says writing the opera altered her brain patterns.

“I have a little bit of a problem with dyslexia, but writing the opera changed that completely,” she said. She also perceives movies differently. “Before, I was focused more on the imagery. Now, I’m hearing words – and lyrics for songs that I’ve been hearing for 45 years or so,” she said. “It’s like somebody put a pair of glasses on me.”

To some ears, her post-Cold Mountain concertos have had an arialike singing quality, with accompanying counterpoint that suggests some sort of character psychology. Philadelphia Orchestra co-principal trombonist Matthew Vaughn talks about the “lyrical vocal” quality of Higdon’s brass writing.

Composers are notoriously bad at taking a step back from their works. But might her concertos be — at least in movements here and there — operas in disguise? Higdon pauses: “Maybe.”

IN CONCERT

Jennifer Higdon's Low Brass Concerto

  • Performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra with Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 Feb. 22-24 at the Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St.  Information: 215-893-1999 or philorch.org.