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NUNN ON ONE MUSIC Jennifer Higdon's full 'Dance Card'
by Jerry Nunn, Windy City Times
2018-03-07

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Composer Jennifer Higdon never stops working. From humble beginnings in the South, this talented and openly lesbian writer exploded onto pages of music with a unique perspective.

In college she earned an artist's diploma from the Curtis Institute of Music. Her Master of Arts and Doctor of Composition were obtained from the University of Pennsylvania afterwards.

Here first opera was based on the novel Cold Mountain and premiered in Santa Fe in 2015. She has been recorded on over 60 albums and her works are performed live many times a year for audiences.

Awards include Grammys, the Eddie Medora King Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Music for her violin concerto in 2009.

With a Chicago premiere on the horizon, Higdon's spoke by phone about her hectic schedule of work.

Windy City Times: You were born in New York?

Jennifer Higdon: Yes, then we moved when I was six months old and that was the last time I lived in New York.

I live in Philadelphia now and have been here 31 years. I grew up in Atlanta for 10 years, then lived eight years in Seymour, Tennessee. It was a complete split of city living versus country living.

WCT: You taught yourself flute at age 15? I couldn't play that instrument at all!

JH: [Laughs] It is not an easy instrument. Now that I look back on it I'm like, "What was I thinking?"

WCT: It is about breathing, right?

JH: It is. The fact that I taught myself seems even more ludicrous. I'm not sure how I figured things out. Now that I see what people go through, it must have been a very insane time for me.

WCT: How did you end up marrying your high school sweetheart?

JH: We met in band. That is Cheryl who you called. We do everything here with the house divided into the publishing area and my composition studio.

We have been swamped with five premieres going on in a very short amount of time. There's a lot happening, Jerry!

WCT: How long have you been together with Cheryl?

JH: It has been 37 years. It's kind of amazing when I think about it. It's a cool adventure when you have your best friend be in on it.

WCT: What did Cheryl play in school?

JH: She was a flute player. She hasn't played since high school. I think her general thinking was one artistic person in the family was enough!

WCT: Will she be at the Chicago show?

JH: No—believe it or not, I won't even be at the Chicago show. I am coming in to do the rehearsals, but I have the world premiere of a tuba concerto in Pittsburgh. I am madly dashing from one thing to the next! I am rehearsing with them because they are recording the work.

I just had a massive premiere at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra a few weeks ago. It was a little brass concerto that they did at Carnegie and took out on tour.

WCT: Tell our readers about Dance Card.

JH: Dance Card is a string orchestra piece. Chicago Sinfonietta is one of the co-commissioners so it premiered two years ago in San Francisco at the end of the concert season. Last season it was in Houston. This year it will be in Chicago.

We tried to time this with Chicago Sinfonietta's anniversary. They wanted to commission some works. This is how long it takes to commission things and work it into the season properly.

It is five movements. It's not your normal dance suite because they are lopsided. There is alternating four beats per measure versus three beats. It is three fast movements with two slow one and celebrates the gorgeousness of string orchestras. There are a lot of solo bits for the principal players.

My grandmother talked about this, when men wanted to dance with you they had to fill out a card that listed what men the ladies would dance with. That is the idea. A collection of dances for a string orchestra.

WCT: You have won many awards over the years. Did you ever expect this success?

JH: No! I don't know how it has happened. It seems to have accumulated. I've been working with some really good performers, which has inspired me to push hard with my writing. I am composing all the time.

I think what happens is artists want to record a work so more people hear about it, which leads to more commissions and things like the Pulitzer and the Grammys, because the recordings get submitted. It is something that happens over time. It a combination of a million little pieces coming together.

It is a very surreal experience.

WCT: Did you go to the Grammy ceremony?

JH: I did go on Jan. 28. I didn't go the first time I won, because I was doing a university residency. I had to watch it on a computer.

I was at the Grammys the 28th, then raced to Chicago on the 29th to start rehearsals for the orchestra. It was racing on an Amtrak train in the wee hours of the morning. It was unreal!

WCT: What are your future plans?

JH: I have a tuba concerto premiering in two weeks at the Pittsburgh Symphony. I am finishing a harp concerto that goes up in May. I am also getting ready to start a chamber opera for Opera Philadelphia.

[Also,] I have five commissions running up until 2022.

WCT: How do you want people to keep up with you?

JH: I don't know. I have to read my own website to know what I'm doing!

I am very fortunate spending every day writing music.

WCT: What do you recommend for your writers just starting out?

JH: Begin writing for people you know. When I started out I was flute performance major, but started writing for my friends.

Get your music played anywhere you can. If you write for people you know then they can play through the pieces. That is the best learning experience.

The Chicago premiere of Dance Card will be at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., on Monday, March 12, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets and information are at ChicagoSinfonietta.org .


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