4/7 – Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra – Christina Johnson

How about a belated post about the last Mellon Grand Classics concert?

The weekend of the 7th was inadvertently a weekend of women-related concerts for me. Thursday night I saw jazz composer Maria Schneider and her jazz big band over at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, and Saturday night I attended both the pre-symphony "I Am Woman” lecture about women in politics and the PSO’s concert featuring Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra.

I
don’t want to get hung up on the fact that all of this was woman
related, since it’s by far secondary to the amazing art that was
created. But it was really interesting and inspiring to see women I
respect succeeding in very male-dominated areas of the arts. Both areas
specifically mean a lot to me – new music and jazz. Playing
students’ works was one of my favorite parts of being an undergrad
music
student, and the composition department seemed to be only around 20%
female, if that. In the last 2 jazz big bands I played with, I was the
only woman in the ensemble. Ms.
Schneider leads a jazz big band (which is a bit different) but
excluding education, I’ve never performed under a female conductor, and
I’ve only seen one woman (Marin Alsop) conduct a major symphony
orchestra.

Back
on track to what’s important – the PSO concert and the music
performed. Since I’m a new music fan, seeing Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto
for Orchestra was exciting. It’s great to see the Pittsburgh Symphony
putting new music front and center. The first movement didn’t grab me,
but beyond that I was intrigued. The pizzicato strings movement was
delightful. I’m
enamored with well-written pizzicato parts of any kind (like the
pizzicato movements in Ravel and Debussy’s string quartets) mostly
because I’m a wind player and I’m jealous that we can’t do things like
that. The percussion movement was also a
favorite too, although I enjoyed it more as it moved further away from
the melodic percussion instruments and towards the unpitched
instruments. Other aspects that worked
particularly well were the amount of exposure of less-featured
instruments (bass clarinet and string bass in particular.) It’s always
neat to hear these wonderful performers get featured.

In
general, hearing Concerto for Orchestra reinforced my initial
perception of Higdon’s writing as sounding somewhat
wind-ensemble-like. My thoughts kept coming back to it throughout the
piece, trying to figure out why. The
conclusion I finally reached is that this is from the combination of a)
prominent feature of skillful writing for winds and b) contemporary but
accessible sounding chords and rhythms. A good
portion of my musically formative years were spent in wind ensembles,
and in college I was lucky enough to perform in a wind ensemble that
played a surprising amount of work by contemporary composers. My
first introduction to new music was through this lens, and aside from
chamber/solo pieces, I’d even venture to say that wind ensemble pieces
far outnumber contemporary orchestra pieces I’ve experienced.

Holst and Gil Shaham this weekend – can’t wait!

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Apr 20