Higdon's 'Violin Concerto' in Philadelphia premiere

Hilary Hahn was the soloist for the Philadelphia premiere of Jennifer Higdon's "Violin Concerto."
Hilary Hahn was the soloist for the Philadelphia premiere of Jennifer Higdon's "Violin Concerto."
Posted: February 16, 2011

Lucky for Philadelphia that Kimmel Center audiences aren't as exuberantly destructive as sports fans after a World Series victory. Otherwise, Verizon Hall might have been trashed Monday night after a similarly prestigious victory, when locally based Grammy Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon took her bows for her Violin Concerto after its Philadelphia premiere by the Curtis Symphony Orchestra and Hilary Hahn. Mayhem was under control. No briefcases or cough drops were flung.

The seeds of the project began years ago when Hahn, now 31, was a student in Higdon's contemporary music class at the Curtis Institute, which was co-commissioner of the concerto that won Higdon the 2010 Pulitzer and has since been recorded by Hahn for Deutsche Grammophon.

The piece feels like a consolidation of Higdon's last decade, full of familiar gestures (airy, piquant colors) but more substantial than usual. It is also tailored to Hahn's considerable brains, fingers, and sense of ensemble, with numerous incidental duets with individual orchestra members. That last part was the only deficit - Hahn can be a bit rigid - in an otherwise exciting performance.

More than in most of her pieces, Higdon here challenges listeners to dispense with ingrained expectations that a movement or a piece will end somewhere close to where it began. The Violin Concerto has its unifying factors, to remind you of these expectations, but mostly she creates through-composed musical journeys. I liken her music to a backpacking trip: Just because you go up the mountain doesn't mean you'll come down, or get a better perspective on where you started.

Her second movement employs the time-honored chaconne, which Brahms used so ingeniously at the end of his Symphony No. 4, in which a world full of ideas was encased in the same repeating chord progression. But instead of using one chaconne, Higdon employed several in succession, maintaining her air of unfettered fantasy.

Never one to squeeze every single possibility out of thematic material, she ends movements with intuitive common sense, without a pretty ribbon to tie things up. Adjusting to this requires a significant inner surrender: The Violin Concerto seems friendly, with its luminous orchestration and non-radical harmonies, but that doesn't mean it is easy.

The young Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena framed Higdon with Hindemith's Concert Music for Strings and Brass, whose intense counterpoint primed your ears for Higdon's version of that, and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, in which the composer dispensed with the through-composed manner of his Symphony No. 4 and funneled himself into a Brahmsian manner of motific development. What a contrast! Higdon's more subtle move in that direction was an artistic decision; Shostakovich overhauled his vision to keep Soviet authorities from sending him to Siberia.

The Curtis orchestra's amplitude wasn't well suited to Hindemith's intricacies, but was perfect for Shostakovich's broader strokes. Most remarkable was how Mena brought the sound down to an intense whisper during appropriate moments. Thus, the military bombast of the final movement was all the more terrifying. I hope Mena returns.


Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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