You might think that the our opening work, Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral, is the odd one out this coming weekend. After all, it’s going up against one of the most popular violin concerti, Bruch’s G Minor, and one of the most popular symphonies, Dvorak’s New World Symphony. However, as popular as the Bruch and Dvorak works are today, blue cathedral holds its own as one of the most performed American works from the past twenty years. In fact, in a 2010 League of American Orchestras study, Jennifer Higdon was nearly neck-and-neck with John Adams as the most performed living composer in the states (no other composer came close). It is easy to understand her popularity once you hear one of her works. She has found a unique and refreshing voice in today’s contemporary music scene, but more importantly, her music powerfully communicates landscapes, colors, and emotions to her audience. In listening to blue cathedral, time seems to stop and you feel completely transported – to where? Here is what Higdon gives us:

Blue…like the sky. Where all possibilities soar. Cathedrals…a place of thought, growth, spiritual expression…serving as a symbolic doorway in to and out of this world. Blue represents all potential and the progression of journeys. Cathedrals represent a place of beginnings, endings, solitude, fellowship, contemplation, knowledge and growth. As I was writing this piece, I found myself imagining a journey through a glass cathedral in the sky. Because the walls would be transparent, I saw the image of clouds and blueness permeating from the outside of this church. In my mind’s eye the listener would enter from the back of the sanctuary, floating along the corridor amongst giant crystal pillars, moving in a contemplative stance. The stained glass windows’ figures would start moving with song, singing a heavenly music. The listener would float down the aisle, slowly moving upward at first and then progressing at a quicker pace, rising towards an immense ceiling which would open to the sky…as this journey progressed, the speed of the traveler would increase, rushing forward and upward. I wanted to create the sensation of contemplation and quiet peace at the beginning, moving towards the feeling of celebration and ecstatic expansion of the soul, all the while singing along with that heavenly music…

Not everything about the work is heavenly – Higdon was devastated by the sudden death of her brother shortly before she began work on the commission for the Curtis Institute of Music in 1999. In an insightful article, Higdon openly explains how she poured her grief, anger, and search for peace into this work. There is no doubt that the piece packs an emotional punch into its brief 13 minutes and the connection it makes with its listeners is what has kept orchestras returning to this work year after year. I had the pleasure of crossing paths with Higdon while a composer at the Mannes College of Music and later as a conductor at the Curtis Institute of Music. She continues to be an inspiration for me not only with her magnificent music, but her enthusiastic and free approach to music making. You can see her infectious sense of humor in this entertaining video with Hilary Hahn, who premiered Higdon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning violin concerto in 2009. Enjoy!


About Francesco Lecce-Chong

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