It’s been nearly 6 months since I started this blog under the assumption that I would be giving Beethoven a good chunk of my attention this year. I was convinced that I hadn’t been fair to the old dead guy, I didn’t appreciate him enough and I needed to try harder to understand him. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, Jennifer Higdon has intervened.
When I picked up my copy of “The Singing Rooms” by Higdon on the final night of the megalith Messiah, I was thrilled. “Yippee!” I screamed with excitement, “A NEW-ish work by a man-ish WOMAN!” I didn’t really say that but I was relieved to be working on something I’d never seen or heard before.
So I took a peek. Hmmmm. Interesting. Is this a…..Violin Concerto? Hmmmm. The voicing looks choppy. Maybe that’s to accent the significance of the poetry? OK. That’s weird. Why would she do THAT? OMG! Does she really mean these dynamic markings? She must. They are all over the place and so specific. She can’t really expect us to sing pianissimo when the orchestra is going nuts all around us, can she? Yes she can. Hmmmm. Interesting.
So went my initial purusal of the score.
A week or two into the rehearsal period I was “in HATE” with the piece. I hated the poetry. It was stupid and I sounded like an idiot singing it. The imagery seemed disembodied and her setting made it all worse. I wondered…”How far can a composer deconstruct line before it loses all meaning.” I was convinced that poetry should NEVER be mistreated by a composer in this way. Setting already complicated, multilayered poetry to complicated, multilayered music was a really bad idea. It wouldn’t end up serving anyone, not the orchestra, not the chorus and certainly not the soloist.
Choppy snippets of semi-atonal phrases stitched together by the wild linear violin solo made this piece feel like an Alabama crazy quilt. Rehearsal was excruciating. Marvie, our accompanist heroically held up the orchestral reduction so we could have some sonic connection to the overall piece. Charles grilled each and every consonant and ending so that the text sounded more like Esperanto than English. Then we were told by Stern to sing it like we mean it. I had no idea what it all meant. The poet clearly spent time following the Grateful Dead. “Once I dressed in luminous dust….” That line alone explains it all.
But then, last night, the miraculous occurred. Jennifer Koh took the stage with Maestro Stern and the symphony complete with an interesting assortment of percussion filed in. The piece began.
So many bits of beauty filled in the empty holes I had gotten used to. The rests were no longer lonely acres of prime compositional real estate, they were landscapes of rolling triplets, cascades of thirty second notes, flute trills and the most agonizingly georgous English Horn duet with violin. It started making sense.
I’m glad I stuck it out. I’m glad I challenged myself and made it to the finish line. This may not be her best work but it’s damn good. I hope more female composers can rise to the level Jennifer Higdon has. I’m looking for a portrait of her to place next to my dusty old cardboard composer portraits I hang in my music classroom. Now…what about bringing back some Ellen Taaffe-Zwilich next season? More women!
Here’s a nice story about her Symphony #4.