The last of nine composers commissioned to celebrate the orchestra's centennial, the 39-year-old Higdon was, at least before yesterday, the least known. Yet her piece is the one most likely to be something that audiences will be hearing regularly, and happily, in years to come.
Higdon represents a conservative turn in composing styles - at least on the surface. Her Concerto for Orchestra has shamelessly ecstatic climaxes, scintillating interplay among instruments, and an orchestration that delivers wave after heart-stopping wave of intoxicating color. Musicians love playing scores that make them sound this fabulous - music director Wolfgang Sawallisch was visibly delighted - and audiences can take them to their hearts at first blush.
Under any circumstances, those qualities conspire to give any piece "legs." However, the usual glacial speed with which new classical works filter into orchestral programs around the country is likely to be faster because of a happy coincidence: Wednesday's concert at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts was also the opening event of the American Symphony Orchestra League's annual convention.
That means most of the orchestra world's most influential decision makers walked in last night with the purpose of surveying how the Verizon Hall acoustics fare with Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben (also on the program), but left with what is probably their first exposure to Higdon, one that represents the consolidation of 20 solid years of compositional activity from this University of Pennsylvania and Curtis Institute of Music-trained composer.
A self-taught flutist who grew up in rural Kentucky, Higdon is anything but a classical-music insider, her hallmark being that her unthreatening musical surfaces that recall Igor Stravinsky, Carl Nielsen, and the more tranquil moments of Aaron Copland are a thin veil over music that's amiably subversive.
While traditional symphonic pieces represent a circular journey, dropping you near where you started, Higdon's concerto never retraces its steps, going further and further afield beyond places where most ears have previously traveled.
Written in five movements, the concerto begins with a hectic, purely orchestral curtain-raiser before heading into thickets of pizzicato strings and continuing with a series of cat-and-mouse duets among oboes, flutes and bassoon. The fourth movement for only percussion and harp eventually does away with melody completely, inhabiting celestial world of pure, often haunting color.
Still, the music isn't nearly radical enough to escape the devil's-advocate question that will face this piece: "Could it have been written 50 years ago?" Music written this intuitively - it's constructed in a series of modules that make more sense emotionally than logically - can't be attached to any one time in history.
How, then, might it coexist with conventional symphonic repertoire, such as Strauss' showpiece Ein Heldenleben? Maybe not so well, at least from Strauss' standpoint. In the first few minutes, the piece seemed, in comparison to Higdon's fresher musical explorations, impossibly pretentious.
Contact David Patrick Stearns at 215-854-4907 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Philadelphia Orchestra
Wolfgang Sawallisch conducts Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra and Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben today and Saturday at 8 p.m. and tomorrow at 2 p.m. at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets are $10 to $110. Information: 215-893-1999 or http://philorch.org.