Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Out with a Bang: A Percussion Concerto Returns

Composer & Cat
This weekend, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon, returns to Harrisburg for a performance of her Grammy-winning Percussion Concerto which the orchestra first played in 2008 with Chris Rose, the symphony's principal percussion player.

That was the first performance by a soloist other than Colin Currie who'd commissioned the piece – he had a two-year exclusivity contract for performances of the concerto – and the result was that the composer also arranged the concerto for wind ensemble so Chris could play it with his “other band,” the United States Marine Band in Washington D.C.

And now, soloist and composer – and conductor Stuart Malina – return, back by popular request, for this weekend's concerts to conclude the Harrisburg Symphony's season. Those performances are Saturday night at 8 and Sunday afternoon at 3 – a program called Out with a Bang which will also include Aaron Copland's “Quiet City” and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5.

Stuart Malina will be offering the pre-concert talks an hour before each performance and there's the traditional “talk-back Q&Q” afterward. Jennifer Higdon could only be here for the Saturday performance, but considering her busy schedule, we're delighted – not to mention lucky – she could be here. (Unfortunately, Copland and Tchaikovsky are unable to attend.)

You can find out more about the concert at these earlier posts: hear Stuart's pre-season preview of the final concert of the season here and hear video-clips of the Copland and the Higdon concerto; in this post, you can read more about Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony and hear a complete performance of the work by Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic.

You can also read Ellen Hughes' article for the Patriot-News here and read my post about hearing the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto, here.

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It was for that 2008 performance that John Clare invited her to be part of a “live interview” on his program “Composing Thoughts” when he and I both still worked at WITF (in fact, John just started a new gig this past Monday, as program director for KMFA, Austin TX).

A foggy day outside the atrium of the then still new WITF Public Media Center (which unfortunately did little to help filming the program), it also involved a performance of two movements from her “String Poetic” for violin and piano with Joel Lambdin (who frequently plays in the Harrisburg Symphony) and his collaborating pianist, Emi Kagawa.  

So, making my blogging a lot easier, this time, here's the complete interview with Jennifer Higdon and John Clare – and how often do you get to hear a LIVE COMPOSER talking her music?!

Part 1 – Introductions – and three excerpts from different works by Jennifer Higdon

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Part 2 – how did these recordings come about; “String Poetic” and how it came about

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Part 3 – introduction to String Poetic: the composer talks about writing the piece

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String Poetic: performance with Joel Lambdin & Emi Kagawa – Nocturne:

String Poetic: Blue Hills of Mist:

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Part 4 – growing up in a family of artists who liked rock music, how images affect her music and how she'd translate them into sounds: a lyrical excerpt from the Percussion Concerto

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Part 5 – how she creates some of those sounds, writing the concerto and talking about the details of the performer (like, having enough time to get from one set-up to the next in time)

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Part 6 – how many percussion instruments are involved: including the percussion section in the orchestra, about 60-70... other questions from the audience

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Part 7 – a question about her cat, Beau (see photo, above); about words and music

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Part 8 – getting beyond the first performance; how the Philadelphia Orchestra ended up commissioning her Concerto for Orchestra and how her career took off from there – “I pinch myself every day: I think, oh my gosh, I get to get up and write music... how did I get [to do] this?”

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Keep in mind this was recorded in 2008 so other related events mentioned here are already in the past.

But a reminder that this weekend's performances are Saturday at 8 and Sunday at 3 at the Forum with, once again, Stuart Malina, the Harrisburg Symphony and soloist Chris Rose. Don't forget Stuart's pre-concert talk and the post-concert “talk-back Q&A.”

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It's funny, but posting this on Facebook – Jennifer shared my blog post reminiscing about the concerto's premiere on her page – reminded me that in the past musicologists would write these scholarly works about great composers by reading their correspondence: think the letters between Mozart and his father, or Brahms and Clara Schumann. Or of Beethoven's “conversation books” in which people would write down their side of the conversation so Beethoven, who was deaf, could respond (we do not, unfortunately, have his replies which were not written down).

There was a joke in the 1970s how someone would do a PhD dissertation on “the telephone conversations of Igor Stravinsky” by examining his phone bills.

Now I'm wondering about some future scholar writing about “The Facebook Status Up-dates of Famous Composers in the Early 21st Century.”

It is amazing how we can have access to creative artists today through the wonders of the internet and things like YouTube brought right to the computer in front of you if not into the palm of your hand.

But this is no joke: it still is only a fragment of what art can be. Until you've had a chance to hear the music performed live, you're only having a portion of that experience. So I hope you'll take this opportunity to come and hear this work played live right in front of you and you can experience not only Jennifer Higdon's music and the orchestra's performance, but also the reaction of the audience around you.

Dick Strawser

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