Composer Jennifer Higdon pursues friendly music

Jennifer Higdon, who won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2010, says her desire to write classical music as hospitable as a Southern dinner stems from a childhood trauma: seeing performance art in the 1960s.

She blames her father, a "hippie before the hippie movement," who took her and her younger brother to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta when they were kids. One "art happening," Higdon says, featured an artist, dressed in black, covered with rubber cement, strapped to a black canvas. As an electric fan began blowing white feathers onto the artist, he passed out from the fumes and collapsed onstage.

"I remember thinking, 'What in the world are the adults trying to do?'" Higdon, 49, says with a laugh, speaking from her home in Philadelphia. "It seemed so silly."

On Wednesday, music-goers at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall will hear Higdon's Percussion Concerto, which epitomizes the composer's avant-garde-averse work. The concerto, a 2010 Grammy Award winner, will be performed by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Marin Alsop, and feature Scotland's Colin Currie, a percussion wizard. The program also features "Fanfare for the Common Man" by Aaron Copland, whose pastoral American sounds echo throughout Higdon's music.

"You don't need a PhD to understand my pieces," Higdon says. "I work hard on making sure they communicate to everybody."

Higdon has composed more than 150 works that populate the myriad halls of classical music. She has written piano sonatas, woodwind concertos, vocal pieces set to Whitman poems and sweeping orchestral pieces, such as "Blue Cathedral," inspired by her brother, who died from melanoma at age 33.

Some critics have written that Higdon's music dazzles without depth — The Times' Mark Swed has said her orchestral scores "fall just short of the cineplex" — while others, such as Vivien Schweitzer of the New York Times, have praised her work for being "imaginative, richly orchestrated and accessible."

Alsop, who has conducted many of Higdon's works, says their pulsing rhythms, layered harmonies and lithe melodies betray exceptional skill and emotional power. "This association of being accessible with somehow being less than brilliant is something that needs to disappear," Alsop says. "People call Jennifer easygoing, but she's actually a very intense person. The word I would use is 'genuine.' I don't think she pretends to be anyone she's not. That's an extraordinarily attractive quality in a human being, especially a composer."

In conversation, Higdon speaks with a soft Southern lilt. Her accent springs from her upbringing on a 40-acre farm in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee. Her father, an artist, wielded a paintbrush, not a plow. But Higdon didn't grow up around a bust of Brahms on a marble pedestal in the family library. The sound of the Beatles and Bob Marley wafted through her childhood.

Her musical journey began when she was a teenager and found the quintessential flower-power instrument, a flute, discarded by her mother, in the attic. She taught herself to play it over a summer, but not because she wanted to play "Wear Your Love Like Heaven." She wanted to do something totally square, and did. By her senior year, she was the proud principal flutist of the Heritage High School Marching Band of Maryville, Tenn.

The marching band also mapped the course of Higdon's personal life. In the band, she met another flutist, Cheryl Lawson, her partner to this day. Lawson runs a publishing company, Lawdon Press, an amalgamation of the couple's names, which administers the rentals and sales of Higdon's music.

The determination with which Higdon taught herself to play the flute powered her through music classes at Bowling Green State University and the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned a PhD in composition, under the tutelage of George Crumb, the West Virginia composer, whose strange, dissonant sonorities can be heard beneath the surfaces of Higdon's music, notably her Violin Concerto, which won the Pulitzer.

Lawson says Higdon was driven by a deep fury to prove herself. "She didn't know anything about classical music when she went to college," Lawson says. "She would put in extra hours to learn the repertoire that everybody else knew. Many professors told her, 'You can't do it, there's no way you're going to succeed, you're too far behind.' They were very discouraging. Yet that fired her up even more."

Today Higdon is the rare composer whose livelihood flows entirely from royalties and commissions, including a recent one from Santa Fe Opera and the Opera Company of Philadelphia to write an opera based on the novel "Cold Mountain." She teaches composition at the Curtis Institute of Music. She writes up to six hours a day though insists it never comes naturally. "I have to work at it all the time," she says. "I'm constantly asking myself, 'Is this interesting enough? How can I make it more interesting?' I'm constantly pushing myself to explore new harmonies and new genres. I want the music to change."

Higdon's quick-change artistry is defined by her Percussion Concerto, which she wrote in 2005 at an artist colony in Italy. At times it glides on gentle marimba notes that evoke "the country lane where I walked to my studio," Higdon says, and at other times drums and cymbals ascend into a joyful clamor that "sounds like a dinner table discussion with my parents."

Currie, for whom Higdon wrote the piece, sees the composer herself in the music. "It's a wonderfully live-wire piece, intense in its fireworks and lyrical moments," Currie says. "It's vivacious, serious but lots of fun. It's exactly who Jennifer is."

Baltimore Symphony Orchestra

Where: Renée & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Tickets: $30 to $250

Information: (949) 553-2422 or

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