Below is a recent interview from the May issue of the Houston Symphony Magazine, “A Conversation with Dan Dunn, Houston-based Speed Painter.”
We are excited to welcome back internationally acclaimed speed painter Dan Dunn, who
Dan Dunn uses paint, sand, canvas, multi-media and 30 years of life as an artist to choreograph his live performance art to classical, movie, pop and patriotic music.
joins Principal POPS Conductor Mike Krajewskiand the Houston Symphony for The Paintjam Concert Experience at Jones Hall. Improvising on a grand scale, Dunn uses paint, sand, canvas, multi-media and 30 years of life as an artist to choreograph his live performance art to classical, movie, pop and patriotic music. Based in Houston, Dunn earned his BFA from Sam Houston State University. He has won numerous national awards and been commissioned to draw caricatures and portraits for the likes of President George H. W. Bush, Sting, Simon Cowell and Jimmy Buffett, to name a few.
Houston Symphony Magazine: How would you describe your journey as an artist?
I have always drawn. My mom says that I just “came out as an artist.” I was an at-risk kid in high school. My father had me tested, and the counselor advised him to get off my back and send me to art school—where I thrived!
During college, I started drawing caricatures at Astroworld, which I loved because of the
Dan Dunn has appeared on shows with Jimmy Fallon, Ellen and Carson Daly.
performance aspect. I worked as an illustrator and art director and continued to draw caricatures for events because it paid well. I started PaintJam in 2004, and it took off in 2007, rocketing to the 45th most-viewed video on YouTube with 85,000 views per hour. That led to appearances on Carson Daly, Ellen and Jimmy Fallon, as well as at the Super Bowl. I have now been to 27 countries and have raised millions for charity with the sale of my work. I have painted and performed for Oprah, Carlos Slim Helu, John Paul DeJoria and Sir Richard Branson, just to name a few. It has been quite a ride!
Houston Symphony Magazine: What inspired you to perform with an orchestra?
We developed a stage show that we workshopped successfully in Las Vegas, and we were looking to put it on stage. We noticed the Houston Symphony doing fun Pops shows, and we thought, what a natural combination—music and art! What could be better?
Houston Symphony Magazine:
You joined the Houston Symphony on our Star-Spangled Salute programs last July 3-4. How would you describe that experience?
It was fantastic! I perform to recorded music at most of my shows. The power and majesty of a live orchestra, especially a worldclass organization like the Houston Symphony—wow! The music just ran right through me. It was very exciting and the audiences seemed to agree.
Houston Symphony Magazine:
What can people expect to see and experience at the shows on May 22-24?
Surprises with every piece! We are exploring new ideas and concepts involving drawing and painting live on stage, and we are even incorporating illusion. I know this is an often-heard phrase, but there really has never been anything quite like it.
Houston Symphony Magazine:
What will happen to the paintings after the concerts?
We are going to have a live auction directly following each performance. Audience members may bid on the paintings created each night. Imagine taking home a unique, tangible memory that captures the powerful combination of music and art!
Houston Symphony Magazine:
As a Houstonian, what’s it like to perform for your home audiences?
Are you kidding me? The best! I went to Jones Hall as a boy and thought it was the most amazing place I had ever seen. I have played Madison Square Garden and The Venetian in Vegas, but it is a dream come true to perform here in my home town. I am honored.
The Paintjam Concert Experience
World Premiere Michael Krajewski, conductor Dan Dunn, artist
May 22, 23, 24, 2015 at Jones Hall
Gustav Mahler in 1892, the year before he began composing his Symphony No. 3.
Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 radiates dynamism, charm and eloquence, and it closes with one of the most glowing slow movements in the orchestral repertoire. But let’s be up-front about one thing: It’s a journey.
Laid out in six movements, the symphony typically clocks in at 90-plus minutes. The ruggedly vigorous first movement takes a half-hour – a scale that astonished even Mahler. As he worked on that massive opening, he told a friend that he had tried to resist going big. But the symphony “has outgrown me and sweeps me along,” Mahler explained. “It is as though the torrent of creation has proved to be an irresistible force, after having been pent up for years. There is no escape!”
But don’t be intimidated, newcomers to the piece. Mahler himself left us guideposts to the musical voyage. Even he needed them, because he had aimed at a towering goal: to depict man and his troubles in the midst of the natural world that envelopes him and the spiritual world that offers him hope.
As the symphony took shape, Mahler created a verbal outline to help point his way. Here’s the final version, slightly abridged:
“A Midsummer Morning’s Dream”
First movement: Summer marches in
Second movement: What the flowers of the field tell me
Third movement: What the animals of the forest tell me
Fourth movement: What man tells me
Fifth movement: What the angels tell me
Sixth movement: What love tells me
Simply keeping those titles in mind might help you tune in to the music’s message. But a further glimpse at each movement reveals even more.
Summer marches in: The weighty, minor-key music that follows the opening fanfare might sound to some listeners like one of the fatalistic composer’s funeral marches. But Mahler actually had nature’s irresistible power in mind. When a protege, arriving at the mountain retreat where Mahler wrote the symphony, gazed up at nearby peaks, Mahler told him not to bother looking: “It is all in the music,” Mahler said. He told another friend: “The movement never stops advancing. As it approaches, it becomes louder and louder, gathers strength and grows like an avalanche until its din breaks above our heads in powerful rejoicing.”
A public domain image of flowers in a field! Claude Monet’s Coquelicots, La promenade (Poppies), 1873
What the flowers of the field tell me: The next four movements are much shorter. Here, the music’s airiness and lilt evoke the pleasure that Mahler, who loved hiking and swimming, found in the outdoors. Though agitation breaks in, serenity prevails.
The animals of the forest sure have a lot to tell Mahler!
What the animals of the forest tell me: Listen for bird calls and a donkey’s bray. Mahler based this droll movement on “Relief in Summer,” a folk poem about a cuckoo that dies and a nightingale that sings gracefully in its place. Some of the symphony’s most magical moments come when the bustle gives way to faraway-sounding solos for the fluegelhorn, a mellow relative of the trumpet: Mahler told a friend that he had loved the fluegelhorn ever since hearing it in military bands when he was a boy.
What man tells me: Now vocalists join in. First, a contralto sings Mahler’s dark-hued setting of a poem from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra: “The world is deep, and … deep is its grief. Joy is still deeper than the heart’s suffering! … All joy seeks eternity – seeks deep, deep eternity.”
What the angels tell me: Jubilant bells wipe away the nocturnal stillness. As a boys’ choir sings along with the chimes, a women’s choir adds a jaunty song about angels celebrating forgiveness from sin. The contralto breaks in lamenting her wickedness, and the choir assures her: “Fall on your knees and pray to God. Love only God forever, and you will attain supreme joy!”
Angels playing music. Perhaps Mahler? Detail of El Greco’s The Annunciation from the Museo Nacional del Prado.
What love tells me: If ever a piece of music needed no explanation, this is it. The vocalists fall silent, and the strings intone a broad, heartfelt theme that grows more and more radiant as the rest of the orchestra takes it up. In the score, Mahler repeatedly exhorts the musicians to fill their parts with feeling. “Very expressively sung,” he writes over the violins’ first phrase; “very expressive and solemn,” he tells the cellos right after that. On the last page, as the entire orchestra wells up fortissimo: “Not with raw force. Full, noble tone.”
Mahler, who ultimately believed in letting his music speak for itself, dropped his subtitles when the score went into print. But a decade after completing the symphony, he still invoked his verbal summary. So why shouldn’t we let it guide us, too? Or we can turn to the summing-up he sent to a soprano he was in love with.
“My work,” Mahler wrote, “is a gigantic musical poem. … It begins at the heart of inanimate nature and progresses to the love of God!”
Steven Brown is a Houston writer specializing in classical music and the arts. He has been the classical music critic of the Houston Chronicle,Charlotte Observer (N.C.) and Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).
Andrés Conducts Mahler 3 May 15, 16, 17, 2015
Andrés Orozco-Estrada, conductor Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-soprano Women of the Houston Symphony Chorus Betsy Cook Weber, director Parker Elementary School Chorus Marianna Parnas-Simpson, director
Ever since its London premiere in 1886, Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 (nicknamed “the Organ Symphony” for the prominent role that instrument plays in it) has been one of the most popular symphonies in the repertoire. It is one of those rare works that instantly entered the canon of masterpieces and has remained there ever since. Its most famous melody, the radiant theme of the finale, has even entered into popular culture: it has been featured in the 1995 movie Babe and at Disney World’s Epcot Center, and has even been adapted as the anthem of the would-be micronation of Atlantium.
Like other modern appropriations of classical music, these ‘bleeding chunks’ of the catchiest part of this symphony are completely divorced from the meaning this music had in its original context. In the case of Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony, though, even seasoned concertgoers who know the piece well may not be aware of the cultural allusions that astute audience members would have heard when listening to this piece on the night of its premiere.
Waiting for the Great French Symphony
The symphony had a troubled existence in 19th century France. After the Revolution of 1789, the symphonies of ancien regime French composers were largely forgotten, and during the post-Napoleonic era, it was opera, in both its grand and comic varieties, that constituted the main musical interest of the French public. Despite the valiant efforts of Berlioz to create a new French symphonic tradition with works like his Symphonie fantastique, symphonic music failed to establish strong roots in France, and even in Berlioz’ own lifetime, his music was sadly more often appreciated in Germany than in his homeland. When symphonies were performed at all, they were usually symphonies by Austro-German composers, especially symphonies by Beethoven. Some even believed that there was something un-French about symphonies in general, and audiences were often skeptical of new French symphonies.
This began to change after the calamitous Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71, which brought a sobering end to the Second Empire and at least gave its decadent Offenbach operettas some pause. In retrospect, many felt that France had been somehow weakened by the excesses of grand opera and the frivolity of cancans and champagne. Saint-Saëns’ contemporary Edouard Schuré thus described the French musical public’s post-war desires:
“[The audience] comes searching for edification, comfort for the soul, a better atmosphere. In this compact mass of humanity, you will find in these pensive faces poets…who abandon themselves here to their dreams….You will see here thinkers tired of their thoughts who find again in this vibrant crowd a sort of religious emotion and who ask of the accents of great music a breath of the lost beyond….Here in this profound collection of each inside of himself is produced an instantaneous and mysterious communication of each with all.”
Enter Camille Saint-Saëns.
The French Beethoven
Camille Saint-Saëns in 1880.
Saint-Saëns began his career as a child prodigy who could famously play any of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas from memory; his career as a composer, however, was slower to take off. By the 1880s, he had written a number of successful pieces which had a foothold in the repertoire, but his early symphonies had failed to stick, and it had been many years since he had composed one.
The symphony itself was under attack: in Germany, Wagner had proclaimed that after Beethoven’s Ninth, writing symphonies was futile and that the only way forward was to write music dramas (which he insisted were NOT operas). Although Saint-Saëns did admire Wagner’s music, he was not a fan of Wagner’s musical dogma, which, if correct, would render all of his own instrumental works pointless. He wrote a number of outspoken articles to this effect, but knowing that the battles of music history are fought with notes rather than words, he resolved to compose a symphony—a great symphony—that would revitalize the genre, show that the French could write symphonies, spiritually heal his country and prove to others and himself that he could write a great masterpiece.
When the Royal Philharmonic Society in London commissioned him to compose a new piece (interestingly, the Society had also commissioned Beethoven’s Ninth many years before), Saint-Saëns had found the opportunity he needed. The premiere in London, conducted by Sir Arthur Sullivan, was a great success, and when the symphony premiered in Paris the following year, the reception was ecstatic. Fellow composer Charles Gounod famously paid Saint-Saëns the highest compliment he could think of by declaring him “the French Beethoven.” The French were ready for a great symphony, and Saint-Saëns had written one.
Part of what Saint-Saëns wanted to prove was that the symphony as a genre was not dead. He wanted to show that composers did not need to resort to words in order to convey meaning to listeners, that a symphony could be just as powerfully moving as a Wagnerian music drama (and much more time efficient). Like Beethoven, he hoped to walk the fine line between absolute music, which has no extra-musical meaning at all (consider a Chopin Nocturne), and program music, which tells a story explicitly indicated by the composer (Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique, for example). Even though Beethoven never said what his Fifth Symphony was about, listeners throughout the centuries and across the world have heard in it a journey from the darkness of C minor to the light of C major, a story of heroic struggle and triumph. Like Beethoven’s Fifth, Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony begins in C minor and ends in C major (a choice Saint-Saëns knew would invite direct comparison), but the journey on which he takes us is rather different. Like Beethoven, Saint-Saëns never provided an explicit program for this symphony, but he did leave clues in his score and the program notes he provided for the Royal Philharmonic Society that point toward a very specific theme: resurrection.
The first and most important clue is the specter of the Dies Irae, which haunts every movement of the symphony. The Dies Irae (“day of wrath”) is part of the traditional Catholic mass for the dead, and its text discusses the Day of Judgment:
Dies iræ, dies illa
Solvet sæclum in favilla,
Teste David cum Sibylla.
Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando Judex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!
Tuba mirum spargens sonum,
Per sepulchra regionum,
Coget omnes ante thronum.
Mors stupebit et natura,
Cum resurget creatura,
The day of wrath, that day Will dissolve the world in ashes As foretold by David and the Sibyl!
How much tremor there will be, when the Judge will come, investigating everything strictly!
The trumpet, scattering a wondrous sound through the sepulchres of the regions, will summon all before the Throne.
Death and nature will marvel, when the creature arises, to respond to the Judge.
The words of the Dies Irae were set to a plainchant melody most likely during the 13th century, and this melody became a symbol of death and the apocalypse:
Later composers who wrote requiem masses (such as Mozart) would write their own original music to go with these words, but in the early 19th century the original plainchant melody began to make a comeback as composers became more interested in telling stories through music. The melody was an easy way for composers to let audiences know that the music was about death. Berlioz adapted it for the last movement of his Symphonie fantastique (which depicts a Witches Sabbath that occurs over the grave of the symphony’s hero):
(It’s strange, I know—Leonard Bernstein with a beard!) Franz Liszt (Saint-Saëns friend and the dedicatee of the Organ Symphony) also used it in his Totentanz (“Dance of Death”) for Piano and Orchestra:
Saint-Saëns does not use the Dies Irae as literally as either Berlioz or Liszt did, but the main theme of his symphony is clearly derived from it:
Enlightened and progressive as the Royal Philharmonic Society was, it began printing program notes for its audiences in 1869, and asked Saint-Saëns to provide some for his new piece. In his notes, Saint-Saëns describes this music as “sombre and agitated in character,” and this theme dominates the tempestuous first movement.
Respite comes with the Adagio, the gorgeous theme of which is described by Saint-Saens as “extremely quiet and contemplative”:
The tranquility of the Adagio is, however, disturbed by a return of the Dies Irae theme, which Saint-Saens describes as “bringing back vague feelings of unrest, augmented by dissonant harmonies”:
The second half of the symphony begins with a scherzo that is by turns both demonic and mischievous, during which the Dies Irae theme also reappears, “more agitated than its predecessors”:
Then, in the great turning point of the symphony, after the unrest of the beginning, the serene yearning of the Adagio and the vivacious play of shadow and light in the scherzo, the organ enters in all its glory, followed by the symphony’s most famous melody, which Saint-Saëns describes as a “totally transformed,” major key version of the Dies Irae theme:
The message is clear: death has been somehow redeemed, transfigured. Further adding to the heavenly atmosphere are the glittering piano arpeggios accompanying the theme (interestingly, Saint-Saëns noted that he used piano in place of the harp – a more traditionally “heavenly” instrument). Immediately following is a variation of the theme for organ, punctuated by trumpet fanfares that recall “The trumpet, scattering a wondrous sound / through the sepulchres of the regions, / will summon all before the Throne.” The unconventional use of the organ itself, more often heard in churches than in symphonies, also lends a religious air to the music. The intense struggle that follows includes a return of the Dies Irae theme in its original minor form that is ultimately vanquished by the major version, like the archangel Michael casting the devil out of heaven:
The End of the World, Or a New Beginning?
Raphael’s St. Michael Slaying the Dragon
Could this be a musical depiction of the apocalypse and the establishment of the kingdom of heaven on earth? Contemporary commentators such as Emil Baumann often resorted to religious language when describing this symphony, and in our own time Watson Lyle, author of Camille Saint-Saëns: His Life and Art, even went so far as to say that the appearance of the major version of the Dies Irae theme”…is as if we gazed upon a profile of the Christ, in bas-relief of snowy marble…”
Did Saint-Saëns intend this to be a religious work? Saint-Saëns may have taken inspiration from Christian eschatology, but his aim was most likely not to retell a story, but to show the spiritual power of music. Like Beethoven, he wanted his music to serve as a metaphor, and despite several highly evocative moments, there is no literal “story” that goes with Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony. One could try to impose a narrative onto the symphony (and some of his contemporaries did), but the result would certainly be unsatisfying. The symphony unfolds according to its own purely musical logic: its melodies and phrases are dictated by what sounds and feels right rather than by specific narrative actions or events. Although Saint-Saëns would later become the first composer to write an original film score, here he did not write film music.
This begs the question: if this music is a metaphor for resurrection and victory over death, then what is being resurrected? The French nation from the ashes of war? Saint-Saëns’ career? The genre of the symphony itself? The answer is likely both all and none of these. Saint-Saëns realized that the power of symphonies comes from their ability to communicate emotions in their purest forms, allowing listeners to experience them unencumbered by characters, plots and settings they may or may not relate to.
Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony lived up to its composer’s lofty ambitions. Its premiere began a second golden age of French symphony writing, and symphonies by Franck, Chausson, d’Indy and Dukas soon followed in its wake. Furthermore, this symphony can be seen as a landmark in a trend that lead to Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony and Richard Strauss’s Tod und Verklärung (“Death and Transfiguration”), in which their composers aimed to depict their respective visions of death and the afterlife. Regardless of one’s own beliefs (or lack thereof), Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony has left audiences feeling spiritually renewed from 1886 to 2015, whether they be in London, Paris, Tokyo, Caracas, or even Houston.
Camille Saint-Saëns and His World edited by Jann Pasler. This collection of essays includes the original program notes Saint-Saëns wrote for the London premiere of his Organ Symphony and Sabina Teller Ratner’s “Saint-Saëns in England: His Organ Symphony,” an informative essay on the historical background of the piece and how it came to be commissioned and performed.
Don’t miss Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony at the Houston Symphony!
Glossary of Italianate Musical Terms for the Uninitiated
adagio: Italian for slow. A piece of music marked adagio by a composer is often referred to as an Adagio.
arpeggio: Derived from the Italian word for harp (because harps often play arpeggios). An arpeggio is musical figure that outlines a triad or chord. Composers often use arpeggios to fill in harmonies and provide accompaniment to melodies.
scherzo: Originally Italian for joke, the scherzo began as a lively substitute for the dignified minuet movement in eighteenth century string quartets. As the minuet fell out of fashion, composers began writing scherzo movements in symphonies and chamber works where minuets would have been used before. While Haydn’s scherzos may have been actual jokes, with time the term came to be applied to music of many different characters. Bruckner’s scherzos are famously terrifying.
This weekend, the Houston Symphony welcomes acclaimed pianist Garrick Ohlsson back to Jones Hall for performances of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Recently, I got to ask Garrick a few questions about what it’s like to play this masterpiece. The following has been transcribed and edited from a phone interview.
Calvin Dotsey: How would you describe Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 to someone who has never heard it before? What is the relationship between the soloist and orchestra?
Garrick Ohlsson: It’s a soliloquy for piano solo with an accompaniment that’s mostly in the background. Chopin was not interested in the orchestra at all. He used these pieces as virtuoso calling cards to introduce himself to the capitals of Europe. He was not interested in symphonic music or its development. The better the conductor and the orchestra do their job, the less they’ll be noticed, in a paradoxical way. It’s really a solo piece for the soloist.
I think the thing to remember about Chopin’s writing at the time—he was twenty years old in 1830 when he wrote this—is that he was a very progressive, modern composer at the time; his music was wildly chromatic, even heavily dissonant. Now we find it dreamy, but at the time, it was as modern as you could get. The figurations are incredibly more elaborate than, say, in a concerto by Beethoven. The other great thing is all the melodies. The tunes are just incredibly gorgeous, and especially in the second movement, which is a beautiful nocturne.
Chopin, age 25
CD: What do you love about this piece?
GO: Well, I love…actually, I think I mostly love the melodic inspiration and the special Romantic, moonlit tenderness of the nocturne. The finale is very, very joyful in a Mozartian way, full of tunes and with spirit, too. The first movement has glorious melodic inspiration combined with very elaborate pianistic display.
CD: I understand that this concerto and Chopin’s music in general have had a very special role in your career.
GO: Yes, a decisive role. I first came to prominence in the musical world in 1970 when I won the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, which is a very big deal in the musical world, and it really put my name on the front page of the world’s major newspapers. So in a way, this competition and Chopin’s music really were the decisive turning point in my having a career. It’s very hard to develop a career as a young artist, and this really gave me a leg up. It gave me my first step everywhere, and Chopin’s music has been with me my whole life. Most pianists love Chopin and have this close relationship with him. I’ve played so much Chopin. In fact I’ve recorded it all – and it’s available on the English label Hyperion as a 16 or 17 CD set. I’ve played lots and lots of Chopin! It’s always been with me. As a matter of fact, when I made my debut with the Houston Symphony in 1973, it was with this piece.
CD: Do you have any favorite passages in this concerto that you would like to highlight for the audience?
GO: Yes, I think the great movement in this piece is the second movement, the slow movement, and I think particularly beautiful is the coda, the end of it, where the orchestra actually gets to sing the tune and the piano decorates it with the most exquisite filigree. There are so many moments that I love in it, but I think I would single out the second movement in general.
Garrick Ohlsson, piano
CD: What do you like to do when you’re not practicing or performing?
GO: Or not taking airlines! Let’s see. I’m just quite a very average person that way. I like to ride my bike in the park; I like to take walks; I like the theater; I like good films. I like to cook (I’m not a very good cook—but I’m really not so bad), and I read. I’m just pretty unexceptional in those ways.
CD: Are there any films or books that you’ve particularly liked lately?
GO: Yes, right now I’m on kind of a kick reading virtually all of Philip Roth—I’ve sort of rediscovered him. I read Portnoy’s Complaint back when I was a teenager, and I didn’t read any more of him until this last year. I started with The Human Stain, which I think is just incredibly brilliant, as all of his books are, so I’m on a real Philip Roth kick right now. I’m a science fiction fan, too, but I won’t mention too many names. For film, I like all sorts of things. I tend to like gloomy, sort of existentially desperate things like Bergman, but I like a wide range.
CD: Thank you so much. Best of luck with Beethoven in Dallas, and I can’t wait to hear you perform.
GO: Thank you, I’m looking forward to being in Houston next week.
Don’t miss Garrick Ohlsson with the Houston Symphony!
Jennifer Higdon’s path to a Pulitzer Prize and Grammy began with a pawn-shop flute . And she didn’t even pick that up until she was 15 years old.
“It’s kind of stunning to think about the trajectory. I got a very late start,” Higdon says.
Higdon will come to Jones Hall April 17-19, when Robert Spano, the Atlanta Symphony’s music director and a longtime champion of Higdon’s music, conducts the Houston Symphony in two works that helped launch her career. The eloquent blue cathedral, composed in 2000, is a musical journey inspired by her younger brother’s death from cancer; the League of American Orchestras has said it’s the most-performed orchestral piece written in the past 25 years. Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra, premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2002, celebrates the virtuosity of that group and of any orchestra that masters this sonic showpiece.
Q. What led you to try playing that flute?
A. It was lying around the house. My mom had gotten the flute at a pawn shop, and the most elementary band (instruction) book you could have. But I don’t remember her playing. For the life of me, I don’t know what compelled me to pick it up. I must have felt some connection to music.
I loved the feel of the instrument and the sound of the music. I didn’t really know any classical music. The big thing in my high school was marching band – we didn’t have an orchestra. Somewhere inside of me, I must have recognized the power of music and been attracted to that.
Q. And that was enough to make you major in music in college?
A. At the time, I was thinking I’d like to be a pro flute player. I thought of maybe a job in a symphony orchestra. Maybe it’s good that I was clueless as to what that entails. If I had known, I might not have started down this path!
Q. What made you go from playing music to creating it?
A. I got interested in composing about halfway through college (at Bowling Green State University). We had someone coming to do a flute master class. Usually, the teacher assigns you to play a piece, and the person doing the master class comments on that. But this time, my flute teacher said to me, “I want you to write a piece.” I should ask her why! I must have said something that suggested I was interested in it.
Q. What did you compose?
A. It was a simple little two-minute piece for flute and piano. I thought composing it was fun. I don’t know if it was arranging the sounds that I liked – I’m not really sure what it was – but I thought it was completely cool. So I kept doing it. I wrote for my friends, for flute choir, for flute duet.
Conductor Robert Spano
Q. Meanwhile, the orchestra at your school got a new director: Robert Spano, who would go on to champion your music. Did you have any inkling that big things were in store?
A. I think he was only like 23 when he took that job. It was his first job out of school. I still remember his audition – I was in the room when he got up in front of the orchestra. It was kind of startling how good he was.
I remember that after he started at Bowling Green, both of us applied to study at Tanglewood (the Boston Symphony’s summer festival and school), him as a conductor and me as a composer. And neither of us got in!
Q. But you did get into the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia for graduate work. When did you decide to shoot for becoming a composer?
A. In the last year and a half of my undergraduate, my brain started making the switch. I loved playing the flute, but the world of the composer was a much bigger world. It was at Curtis that I finally switched over from flute to composing.
Q. Curtis later commissioned blue cathedral. Were you thinking of your brother from the outset?
A. It was about a year after I lost my brother. So I was still in that intense grieving period. The combination of the emotions and the things I was thinking about – it just kind of showed up on the paper. I did a lot of chamber pieces and choral works during that time, and you can tell that something had happened in my life. They have a certain intensity to them.
I had a feeling the piece would be important for me, but I didn’t know how. It gets played somewhere every weekend, amazingly.
Jennifer Higdon at work composing.
Q. And your Concerto for Orchestra also has personal meanings, in a way?
A. The Philadelphia Orchestra asked specifically for something that would highlight the players (many of whom teach at Curtis, where she met them). So I thought a lot about the people. To me, music is about people – it’s about making a connection. I thought about Jeffrey Khaner, the principal flute, and how beautiful his sound is up high. That’s why the flute line goes so high. The oboe line runs the entire range of the instrument. It’s very much like Richard Woodhams, the principal oboe. He has great tone – kind of regal.
The Philadelphia Orchestra premiered it during a League of American Orchestra conference. That performance changed my life overnight, literally. People (from across the United States) had come to the conference to hear the orchestra’s new concert hall. Nobody had any idea who I was.
Amazingly, the piece went off great. I remember walking out on the stage, and the entire audience went up on its feet. It was an overwhelming experience. The phone started ringing the next day, and commissions started coming in. And they haven’t stopped since.
(Question and answers have been edited)
Steven Brown is a Houston writer specializing in classical music and the arts. He has been the classical music critic of the Houston Chronicle,Charlotte Observer (N.C.) and Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).
Don’t miss Jennifer Higdon with the Houston Symphony! Hear from Jennifer herself at our Prelude pre-concert talks April 17, 18 and 19!
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