Share Button
Student musicians Alyssa Rubinstein C’05 and Brittany Erikson C’08 in performance at Hill House.

Penn’s music department, known for top-quality scholarship and world-class composers, has gotten over its long case of performance anxiety.

By Karen Rile | Photography by Candace diCarlo

Plus: “Accidental genius” Jennifer Higdon


I first realized that something was up with the music department at Penn in the fall of 2001, when one of my writing students started lugging a cello to class in the upstairs seminar room at Kelly Writers House. The enormous fiberglass case, its white shell gleaming like a space capsule, took up a whole corner of the room and caused a ruffle of curiosity among our fiction workshop.

“Is that a guitar?” someone wanted to know. “Are you going to play for us?”

Drew Armstrong C’03 shook his head and smiled mysteriously. “My piano trio rehearses after class. We have a coaching with the Cassatt Quartet, part of their residency.”

Piano trio? Residency? Was this the University of Pennsylvania?


Ask anyone about performing arts at Penn and they’ll tell you about the thriving extracurricular organizations—the Penn Glee Club, the University Symphony Orchestra and Choral Society, theater groups, pop, gospel, early music, and a cappella ensembles. But ask about performance in the music department and, until recently, you’d get a blank look. The University of Pennsylvania’s music department has long been the home of world-famous composers. Of pioneering music theorists, music historians, and music anthropologists. It’s a top-notch academic department. We study music, we analyze music, we think about it, and we write it.

Just don’t expect to hear music.

At least, that’s how it used to be, back in the day.  James DePreist W’58, nephew of famed Metropolitan Opera singer and Philadelphia native Marian Anderson, received his degree from the Wharton School before going on to become one of America’s most influential music directors—impressive, if perhaps not your typical post-Wharton trajectory. Over the past 40 years, DePreist has served as guest conductor for every major North American symphony, as well as orchestras throughout Europe and Asia. Currently, he is the conductor laureate of the Oregon Symphony and the permanent conductor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra.

During his undergraduate years at Penn, DePreist found little in the way of encouragement from within the music department. “Stodgy would not be an inappropriate word for the department at the time,” chuckles DePreist in a telephone interview from Manhattan, where he serves as the director of conducting and orchestral studies at the Juilliard School.

DePreist used his entrepreneurial bent to organize student-run concerts. “This was the mid-fifties, the heyday of really great jazz in Philadelphia, and I ran afoul of the department for organizing eclectic student-run concerts that included a mix of genres—string quartets, jazz combos, piano soloists, big bands. There were no barriers for us students, but a concern was expressed that what I was doing was, ah, perhaps not appropriately representative of the music department.”

For some, Penn’s focus on academics would prove congenial. So it was with music historian Robert Kendrick C’82, chairman of the music department at the University of Chicago. Kendrick arrived at Penn expecting to double major in German and Spanish. But when he signed up for a freshman-year introductory music theory course taught by composition grad student Jay Reise G’75, now Penn’s Robert Weiss Professor of Music and a prominent composer, he was hooked on music history and theory, and hasn’t looked back since.

“The great thing about Penn,” says Kendrick, “was the incredible academic training.” As for practical music studies, the department left you on your own, to seek instruction elsewhere. Typical of Penn music students at the time, Kendrick hoofed it to 30th Street Station once a week, and took the Paoli Local to piano lessons with Joseph Barone at the Bryn Mawr Conservatory of Music, practicing his keyboard skills in isolation.

As recently as a decade ago, the situation for student performers hadn’t changed much. Christopher Amos C’98 transferred to Penn after a few semesters as a piano performance major at Temple University’s Esther Boyer College of Music. “I realized that I wanted a broader, liberal arts education, and felt lucky to have Penn and its world-class musicology faculty right in my backyard,” says Amos, now assistant director of education and community partnerships for the Philadelphia Orchestra. During his undergraduate years at Penn, Amos participated in the University Choir and  played chamber music informally with friends, but, like those before him, his prospects for making music among peers were limited.

It might seem paradoxical that the institution that produced some of the most eminent and celebrated musical minds of the late-20th and early-21st century—including award-winning composers like Jennifer Higdon G’92 Gr’94 [see story on page 38], Melinda Wagner Gr’86, and Osvaldo Golijov Gr’91—did so in near silence. But Penn’s music department has never had a performance faculty. Yes, there are a few quasi-departmental early music groups on campus, but these have always had a role at Penn because they are scholarly ensembles that draw historians and other specialists.

In days gone by, when it came to fine arts, Penn traditionally leaned away from praxis and towards scholarship. As the argument went, there was no point in diluting the University’s academic mission by duplicating the offerings of other nearby institutions. Which seems perfectly reasonable: Philadelphia already boasts several prominent music conservatories, the most celebrated of which, the world-renowned Curtis Institute, sits on Locust Street just off Rittenhouse Square a brisk half-hour walk across the Schuylkill. In fact, Penn has a long-standing relationship with Curtis, facilitating regular readings and performances by Curtis students of works by Penn composers.

A healthy number of distinguished performing artists have been educated here at Penn, among them soprano Galina Sakhovskaya C’00 EAS’00 and flutist Mimi Stillman, who is currently a doctoral candidate in the history department. But these artists attended Penn for academics only and received their musical training elsewhere. As for the composers in Penn’s small but illustrious graduate program, they arrive already well-versed in the performance aspects of their craft. Many, such as current students Matt Barnson (BM, Eastman) and David Ludwig (BM, Oberlin; MM Manhattan School) boast conservatory diplomas. Ludwig, who has also done post-graduate work at Curtis and Juilliard, serves on the faculty of the Curtis Institute while he simultaneously pursues his Ph.D. in composition at Penn. Clearly, there is not much Penn could or should offer such a distinguished crowd in terms of piano lessons.


But what about the rest of the University? The future doctors, lawyers, and scholars, many of whom have studied and loved music since early childhood? Does coming to Penn effectively truncate their musical lives?

Not any more, thanks in large part to the concerted—pardon the pun—efforts of former Interim Provost Peter Conn, a dedicated group of undergraduates, and a couple of visionary music professors. Conn, who also serves as the Andrea Mitchell Professor of English, has long been a proponent of the idea that there should be more to a liberal arts education than a diet of undiluted scholarship. “I personally believe that the arts are an indispensable component of a complete educational experience,” he said during an interview this past spring in his College Hall office. “We want to move all of the arts, including music, as much as possible into the foreground, to connect cultural and arts experiences with academic experiences.”

Penn’s innovative new College House Music Program now complements the department’s core academic mission by providing performance opportunities with optional course credit, not only for majors, but for interested students at all levels of proficiency, including beginners. Duos, trios, quartets, and quintets now rehearse in spaces throughout the University under the supervision of Director of Chamber Music David Yang C’89 GAr’92 [“Alumni Profiles,” May/June 2004].

The menu includes not only Western classical music, but also world music and no-longer-outlawed jazz. Meanwhile, a simultaneous revision of the music department’s major has created two rigorous applied music courses designed for highly experienced players: Music 10 (subsidized private instruction) and Music 11 (ensemble).

“This program allows students who have chosen not to go to a conservatory to have the opportunity to continue playing and learning with conservatory-level teachers,” says Music 11 student Alyssa Rubinstein C’05. An anthropology major with a concentration in human biology, Rubinstein was an accomplished violinist with conservatory potential when she decided to attend Penn as a pre-med. “When you choose a school like Penn over a conservatory, you gain a fabulous education and experiences, but you stand to lose performance opportunities and quality coachings. The chamber music program bridges the gap between Penn and the music world.”

Meanwhile, in September 2003, with the help of faculty master and composer Jay Reise, Hamilton College House established Penn’s first-ever “Music Performance and Composition Floor.”  The music floor features plenty of common space for composition and collaboration, and students are given access to computers with midi keyboards and the latest composition software. Each semester, the floor presents a recital featuring a diverse mix of works performed—and often written—by its residents.


The genesis of these new programs came about through two concurrent initiatives: During the summer of 2000, my cello-toting former writing student, Drew Armstrong had been hanging out with two friends, violinist Clare Wang C’03 and pianist Megan McGill C’03, working through the Mendelssohn D Minor Piano Trio. By August, the three had founded the Penn Chamber Music Society, a student-run entity whose goal would be to provide opportunities for undergraduates to play together in small ensembles.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, then-Deputy Provost Peter Conn was helping Music Professor Christopher Hasty launch a program of subsidized private music lessons in Penn’s residential college houses. Hasty also secured a residency with the Manhattan-based Cassatt String Quartet, an outstanding young ensemble named for the American impressionist painter, Mary Cassatt [“Gazetteer,” September/October 2001]. The residency included performances and coachings, and was to continue for four full seasons—the first two funded through an undesignated gifted by Yew Lin Goh W’79 and the final two through a gift from Andrea Mitchell CW’67. (In May, Mitchell renewed funding to support the Cassatt Quartet’s residency.)

“The Cassatts were a huge help to me,” reminisces Armstrong, now the box office manager and assistant director of admissions of the Marlboro Music Festival as well as a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist. “One of my favorite memories was when we were playing the Shostakovich Piano Trio—a tricky composition—and sweating hard. During the scherzo, the cellist, Caroline Stinson, said, ‘Don’t take it so seriously. It’s sarcastic; it’s funny. Make sure we know that.’ We learned to play the scherzo so that it could make people laugh at Shostakovich’s jokes, while at the same time understanding the very intense, moving passages in the piece.”

Armstrong was in many ways the quintessential Penn undergraduate: multitalented, he excelled equally in academics, sports, and music throughout high school. He came to Penn as an English major and music minor, but it was not until he began focusing on chamber music during that fateful summer of his freshman year that he understood the depth of his passion for music. Through Music 10, he went on to take private cello lessons with Jeffrey Solow at the Esther Boyer School of Music at Temple University, and through Music 11 he studied chamber music intensively, both with the Cassatts and with David Yang.

When Armstrong graduated from Penn he considered furthering his cello studies at a conservatory, but soon came to accept that the best way for him to enjoy music was on his own time. “To me, the most satisfying concert I can put on is to invite some friends over, cook some food and open some wine, and play Brahms for the people who matter to me. Being able to play for friends and family, and bringing people together satisfies me more than anything else,” he says.

“At some level, the Penn students are more hungry than your typical conservatory student,” observes Cassatt violinist Muneko Otani. “When we arrived on campus, it was clear that they were not used to having access to professional chamber musicians. We went into theory and music history classes and performed for them some of the repertoire they were studying. We led orchestra sectionals; we were stand-partners with the students during orchestra. And we did a lot of recitals—for example, a program of all women composers for Women’s History Month. Best of all was the chance to work with living composers. Professor Jay Reise wrote a quartet for us, and we performed it for his advanced students. They got to watch us communicating with him, trying to make sure we understood his ideas, and figuring out the best way to get those ideas into the notations for future performers. It was very exciting for us and for the students to see us being part of the creative process.”


AT the close of the 2001-2002 academic year, with the fledgling program in place, Hasty left Penn for Harvard and passed the baton to Cristle Collins Judd, an energetic young associate professor specializing in music theory and analysis, whose novel use of computer technology earned her the Dean’s Award for Innovation in Teaching in 2000. Judd is an oboist herself; her three daughters are active musicians: an oboist, a cellist, and a trumpeter, and all three girls also study piano and sing. Judd’s husband Robert, an adjunct music professor at Penn, is the executive director of the American Musicological Society, as well as an organist and choir director.

Cristle Collins Judd, of the “other musical Judd 
family,” serves as associate chair for performance. Photo by Candace diCarlo

“I guess you could say we’re the other musical Judd family,” quips Judd in an e-mail, a few days after our interview in her pleasantly cluttered office in the Music Building. Given the combination of her professional commitment to teaching and her personal interest in live musical performance, it was only natural that Judd would strive to widen the scope of the College House Music Program so that it included not only individual lessons but also extensive ensemble coaching, masterclasses, performances, and outreach concerts at the Penn Alexander School in West Philadelphia. In her position as associate chair for performance, Judd has brought in a diverse roster of eight College House Music Fellows, professional musicians from the Philadelphia area who come regularly to teach, coach, and perform in residences all over campus.

In addition, the College House Music Fellows and their student ensembles participate in a series of high-caliber, informal recitals in the houses. “These are short concerts, under an hour, in a comfortable setting,” says Judd. “We’ve learned from experience that the best hour to schedule a recital is 9 p.m.—study-break time—and that it helps attract an audience if we serve good food. Of course, while we’re facilitating performance opportunities, we’re simultaneously working to build audiences.

“This program is uniquely Penn,” she continues. “It’s the spoke-in-the wheel model. We took advantage of the University’s decentralization to create an atmosphere in which students can experience music and music-making in many different environments, including their own residences. As the college houses are renovated, they are putting in practice rooms to accommodate all of this new student demand. We’ve moved Steinways and Yamahas, six- and seven-foot pianos, to rooftop student lounges in the high rises. The instruments are on long-term loan by the department in exchange for the cost of routine tuning and maintenance. The department takes care of arranging the instrument care, and the college house pays for it. We’ve moved in drum sets, amps, and an electric bass.

“And we’ve built a wish-list: a harpsichord, an Indonesian gamelan, more drum sets, more pianos. Right now we have eight fellows, but our goal is to have 10. We have over a hundred students participating in the program this year, but our goal is to serve 250. We’d love an endowment to support small ensembles, including chamber music, world music, and jazz. We’d like to offer a full subsidy to some students who can’t afford lessons. And we’d love to bring back an ensemble in residence.”

The performance chair is only three years old, and when questioned Judd acknowledges that the new position came without any increase in departmental resources. “We’re doing all of this with the same size staff as three years ago. We do it on a wing and a prayer.”

Judd has been known to personally hand-carry music stands across campus, when necessary, and to march into President Amy Gutmann’s office with a boombox on her shoulder. When the department didn’t have money for a drum set, Judd persuaded a neighbor who was selling her house to donate the drums in her basement. “I dragged it upstairs and got jazz drummer Lucky Thomson, who would be teaching on the set, to come to my house and look it over. With his approval, we drove the set over to Penn, where House Dean Jane Rogers and I unloaded it and hauled it into a practice room in the college house. I confess I got some strange looks from students as I hauled in a drum set and all the peripherals across the Quad.”

The boombox incident came about because Judd wanted to ensure that ensembles from the music department would be part of Gutmann’s inaugural ceremonies last October [“A Marriage Meant to Be,” November/December]. She was invited to the president’s office to discuss the selection of pieces, but when she pulled out the CD she had been asked to bring, it was discovered that none of the computers had been set up for audio playback. Judd immediately volunteered to return later in the day with a boombox. “It turned out that the boombox was quite heavy, and that on my shoulder was the only way I was going to get it all the way from the Music Building to College Hall. It was my one and only deejay gig—and for the entire inaugural committee. Not exactly what I imagined getting a Ph.D. for, but it worked. The Penn Sinfonia and the University Choir were a wonderful visual and sonic background for the inauguration, and the payback was the evident joy on Amy Gutmann’s face during their performance.”

When I mention the College House Music Program during my phone interview with Robert Kendrick, he listens with pleasure to my description of the latest developments in his alma mater’s undergraduate offerings.

“That sounds like something we here at Chicago should really try to study and learn from,” he says. “We’re an institution that historically, like Penn in the old days, has let performance happen on the margins of other student responsibilities and activities. Now we’re trying to upgrade our offerings for practical music-making opportunities. In the context of a department that has a relatively small number of music majors, we also have a lot of students who are not majors but who want to do serious music performance.”

James DePreist is equally effusive. “What’s going on now is just an explosion,” he says. “The musical life at Penn as it is today would have been a dream for me, when I was an undergraduate. I applaud everything that’s happening.”

Private lessons and small ensembles are an important facet of the music department’s initiative towards increasing music-making among Penn’s undergraduate students. But in recent years the well-established large ensembles, such as the University Symphony Orchestra and the University Choral Society also boast burgeoning membership with increased percentages of student participants. These days, students are given the option of  enrolling for academic credit: both semesters must be completed to receive the equivalent of a single credit, and enrolled students must sit a rigorous final exam administered by the ensemble director.

Music Director and Conductor Brad Smith 
never expected to find himself at a university 
without a performance department. Photo by Candace diCarlo

“We try as much as possible to use students and members of the Penn community in every position in the orchestra,” says Music Director and Conductor Brad Smith, who  arrived at Penn in the fall of 2003 and lives on the Music Floor of Hamilton College House with his wife Becki and their three-year-old daughter, Emily (baby number two was due in June).

 “In the past, the orchestra may have relied more on ringers, but we now use them only in the hardest-to-find positions, like bass trombone and harp,” says Smith. Interest among undergraduates in Penn’s orchestra is on an upswing. “In our September [2004] auditions we had to turn away 15 violins. We have a full viola section, and violists can be hard to find. Overall, our membership in the orchestra has increased from 70 in 2003 to 85 this year. The wind ensemble has grown from 40 members to 50.”

In September 2004, with Judd’s help, Smith launched the Penn Sinfonia, a 24-piece chamber orchestra comprised of the top student players from the University Symphony Orchestra. A College House Music Fellow sits in the principal chair and leads each section. The Sinfonia’s debut performance at Amy Gutmann’s  inaugural celebration featured selections from Grieg, Handel, and Purcell, the latter performed in conjunction with the University Choir, directed by William Parberry.

Smith, who also directs the University Wind Ensemble, the Penn Brass Ensemble, and the Penn Percussion Ensemble, earned his degree in orchestral conducting from the University of Texas at Austin. He confesses that he never expected to find himself at a university without a performance department. “If you’d asked me during my Ph.D. program whether Penn would be the ideal program for me, I wouldn’t have thought so,” he says. “Penn’s music department is known mainly in academic circles for its prominent faculty in theory, history, and composition. Everyone says, ‘George Crumb’ when they think of Penn. Which is fine. It doesn’t make sense for Penn to be all things to all people in music. We have our niche.

“Our programs reach students who might not otherwise have any musical experience during their time at Penn,” Smith adds. “And these are students of the highest quality. Many of them—particularly string players, thanks to the Suzuki movement—have been playing since age three. There is a lot of natural talent here.”

Of course, being a music director at a school like Penn is not without its frustrations. For the most part, music remains a pleasure, not a priority, among Smith’s students. “It’s my priority, of course, but I don’t take it personally,” he says. “For example, last semester seven of my students had an exam scheduled during the dress rehearsal two days before our big concert. I can think of nothing but Stravinsky, and they have a stat midterm. Yet we survived, and the concert was great.”

“I’ve worked closely with Brad for over a year now,” enthuses College junior and trumpeter Michael Mauskapf. “He’s made the ensembles better, and he’s taken a personal interest in the department, looking to better use our monetary resources—which are surprisingly small. He has not only helped my skill as an orchestral player, but has also counseled me on musicianship and grad school.”

Mauskapf is one Penn student who does make music his priority. Principal trumpet in the University Symphony Orchestra, the Wind Ensemble, and the Penn Brass Ensemble, he entered Penn as a chemistry major, but soon switched his allegiance to the music department. This past year he served as Student Activities Council representative to the music department, as well as manager and librarian for the University ensembles along with his roommate, Wharton School sophomore Ryan Namdar.

“Ryan also plays the trumpet, although I didn’t originally know it,” Mauskapf explains. “We were freshman roommates, and when I unpacked my trumpet he mentioned that he played, but hadn’t brought his instrument to school. I forced him to have his parents send it, and by the spring semester, he was playing alongside of me in all the groups.”

Mauskapf and Namdar met their current trumpet teacher, College House Fellow Darin Kelly last fall. Mauskapf credits Kelly with helping him return his playing to its former level, when he was a high-school trumpet star considering applying to conservatories. Currently, Mauskapf dreams of playing in a top-tier orchestra, but he knows those positions are hard to come by. A true liberal-arts student, Mauskapf sees his future as wide open: “I may look into a graduate degree in music ed, history, performance. Or I might do a law degree—I change my mind daily!”

If Symphony Orchestra Conductor Brad Smith is the new kid on the block, then Bill Parberry is the music department’s old head. A tenor trained at the New England Conservatory and an accomplished amateur jazz pianist, Parberry received a master’s degree in conducting at Temple University and was working towards his Ph.D. in musicology at Penn when the music department hired him to conduct the Choral Society. That was 35 years ago, and Parberry, whose youthful looks belie his long tenure, has been here ever since, leading the University Choral Society, an inclusive ensemble of about 125 singers, and the elite University Choir, which consists of 35 singers culled from the larger group. In the mid-1990s Parberry took over the leadership of Ancient Voices, a professional-quality early-music group descended from the now-defunct Collegium Musicum. Ancient Voices is comprised of graduate students, music professionals, and a few undergraduates, and sometimes works in cooperation with other department-sponsored early-music groups on campus: the Penn Baroque Ensemble and Recorder Ensemble, both led by Gwyn Roberts.


And the future is even looking bright for the department’s decrepit home on 34th Street. For now, it’s still the drabbest building on campus, but the pigeons that long roosted in its eaves have been shooed and the guano scrubbed away. And Department Chair Jeffrey Kallberg adds this good news: as Bennett Hall, the English Department building next door, undergoes extensive renovation [“Gazetteer,” January/February 2004], the music department looks forward to acquiring the use of its spacious fourth floor, which formerly housed offices for English graduate students. Above the drop-tiles in the central area lies the original high ceiling that was built when the space was used as a gymnasium for the College for Women. This acoustically resonant section will be converted into two flexible classrooms that can double as small performance spaces. Each will be equipped with a nine-foot grand piano. And there will be practice rooms, instrument storage space for the as-yet-unacquired gamelan, and space for recording and digital music.

And after those renovations are finished, some time around Spring 2006, the music department will temporarily squish its offices into Bennett Hall while the Music Building undergoes its own overhaul.

“This is a wonderful liberal arts department of music,” says Cristle Judd. “The performance story is only part of the many good things going on here—world-class scholarship and composition by our faculty, new faculty specialties and courses in jazz and music from many parts of the world, community partnerships and ethnographies through the West Philadelphia Gospel Project, undergrad research projects on medieval manuscript fragments at the Free Library, music and technology classes in a state-of-the-art computer lab.” The list goes on.

Expect to hear even more from Penn’s music department as it moves into the 21st century equipped with long-overdue new facilities.

And expect to hear music.

Karen Rile C’80 is the author of the novel Winter Music and numerous works of short fiction and non-fiction. She teaches undergraduate fiction workshops at Penn.


SIDEBAR

Jennifer Higdon

June 12, 2002. Waiting backstage at the Kimmel Center, moments before the Philadelphia Orchestra rockets their way into the opening measures of her new Concerto for Orchestra, Jennifer Higdon G’92 Gr’94 has a sudden realization. Almost exactly 20 years before, she was finishing up her first semester of introductory music theory at Bowling Green State University.

It is one of those crystallizing moments. For a second, she shakes her head in disbelief—from “Theory for Dummies” to Wolfgang Sawallisch, in just two decades. And what a long, strange trip it’s been.I too, remember that particular concert because it was my 20th wedding anniversary, and to celebrate, my husband, Larry Smith C’78 M’82, and I took our four daughters to hear the Higdon premiere. At the climax of the electrifying all-percussion fourth movement, as we peered down in rapt attention from our seats high up in the third tier above the orchestra, our eight-year-old’s Stagebillbooklet accidentally slipped from her fingers and plummeted to the floor, just missing the busy marimba player. Calla clapped her hands across her mouth, mortified, shrinking back into her seat from what she imagined was every pair of eyes in the hall.

“I remember your daughter,” laughs Higdon, when we meet over hot chocolate at the Pink Rose Café near South Street on a blustery February afternoon. She tells me that her longtime partner, Cheryl Lawson, was in the audience that evening and witnessed the descent of the Stagebill from her orchestra-level seat. “Cheryl says the expression on that little girl’s face was priceless.”

With her short, tousled hair, twinkling eyes, and friendly smile, Jennifer Higdon is one of the few artists I’ve met who actually looks like her publicity photos. Yet, despite her recent success, she exudes not a whiff of pretension. She speaks with a light Tennessee drawl that catches the ear of our waiter.

“My aunt lives in Tennessee,” he tells her, and they chat for a minute before he trots away, oblivious to the fact that he was just shooting the breeze with the hottest young composer on the American classical-music scene. In fact, Higdon is just back from the 2005 Grammy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, where the recording of her Concerto for Orchestra/City Scape with Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony was one of the winners.

Fully booked with commissions for the next several years, Higdon is currently turning away six to eight proposals every month. Upcoming highlights include a concerto commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra for Scottish percussionist Colin Curry, to be premiered in fall 2005; a string quartet for the Tokyo Quartet, for March 2006; a piano concert for Lang Lang, commissioned by the National Symphony, for April 2007; a violin concerto for Hilary Hahn, commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony, for the 2007-08 season; and a concerto for Eighth Blackbird (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion), which Higdon calls “one of the best new music groups around.” That one’s due out in the 2008-09 season. After our hot chocolate, Higdon will hike uptown to meet with members of Time for Three, a popular bluegrass/classical crossover string trio, for whom the Philadelphia Orchestra has commissioned her to write a triple concerto. And these are just highlights plucked from Higdon’s actual to-do list.

A note for those who don’t follow the ups and downs of the classical-music industry: This is a splendidly, almost embarrassingly rich catalogue of success for any contemporary composer, even for a graduate of Penn’s prestigious Ph.D. program in composition. A recent report published by the American Symphony Orchestra League ranked Higdon as the second most frequently performed living American composer, just behind John Adams. And with over 50 performances in 2004-05, her Blue Cathedral, written to memorialize her younger brother, Andrew Blue Higdon, after his premature death in 1998, is the single most frequently programmed American orchestral work composed in the last 25 years. (Fellow Penn grad and classmate Osvaldo Golijov Gr’91’s Last Round is number two.)

Not too shabby for the self-professed “black sheep” of a rock-and-roll family, the girl who never had a formal music lesson until college, who had to apply to Penn’s graduate program three times before she was accepted, who needed two tries to get out.

Higdon was raised in Atlanta and later rural Tennessee, where her hippie parents steeped her early and long in a counterculture filled with “art happenings” (early performance art events) and experimental film festivals. From the beginning, she was encouraged to question authority and to think outside the lines.

 Growing up, she wanted to be a writer, and to this day she publishes essays and sometimes writes her own liner notes. When I suggest that her compositions seem to have a certain narrative impulse, she tells me that, to her, the similarity between writing music and writing words is staggering. “Writing poetry and stories taught me about rhythm and pacing. For me, musical themes are like the characters in a play or story.”

Her parents were friends with photographer Joel Meyerowitz, whom she credits as one of her earliest influences, and the Higdon kids grew up making art, including eight-millimeter movies and photographs. “The first photo I ever took was of Joel, sitting on his porch, eating a peach,” she says. “He always had a camera around his neck; he was always working. He became my model for self-discipline and process.”

These days, Higdon composes on the fly during her extensive travels, packing along a small midi-keyboard and a laptop computer. As for process, she often comes up with the title first, and then a sort of “sonic snapshot”—the sound equivalent of a photograph. The daughter of two visual artists, she uses a lot of imagery in her work, bright sounds moving to dark.

“My dad was a painter and commercial artist, and my mom did paintings and abstract quilts,” she says. “They listened to music in the house all the time—the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Marley.”

But never classical music. Higdon, whose work is sometimes compared to Aaron Copland’s, remembers hearing a broadcast of Appalachian Spring, by chance, on National Public Radio as a girl, and remembers liking it. But she had little exposure to the classics and no formal music lessons until college. When she was 15, she taught herself to play the flute from a band-method book she found lying around the house. After she worked her way through the first book, she asked her mom to order the next three books, and by the end of the year she was good enough to win first chair in her high school band.

Higdon went to Bowling Green State University in Ohio as a flute performance major, where she met her mentors, Atlanta Symphony Music Director Robert Spano and composer Wallace DePue, father of Philadelphia Orchestra violinists Jason and Zachary DePue. Next stop was Philadelphia and the prestigious Curtis Institute, where she earned an Artist’s Diploma and honed her flute skills to virtuosic level. (Despite her heavy composing schedule, Higdon still finds time to record and concertize.)

After Curtis, Higdon applied to Penn’s graduate program in composition, but was rejected twice before being admitted. In the meantime, she studied with Penn Music Professor Jay Reise G’75, who gave her free, informal lessons and loads of encouragement. When she was finally accepted into the program, the going wasn’t always easy, especially when her first Ph.D. thesis was rejected by the committee. Higdon’s second dissertation, a string quartet called “Voices,” which was commissioned by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, passed. She graduated and joined the faculty of Curtis, where she now teaches composition.

“With my background, I was at a disadvantage compared to the other Penn students, who’d been listening to Beethoven since age three,” she says. But being a foreigner in her adopted culture came with its advantages. “The sheer number of Beatles tunes I listened to helped me to realize the ability of music to communicate. My background wasn’t impoverished: it was a wealthy background. I have the ability to hear music like most people who didn’t grow up ‘classical.’ And I have complete joy in what I’m doing because it wasn’t squashed out of me.”

Higdon’s work is sometimes described as having a twang to it, a pop energy reminiscent of bluegrass, folk, and reggae. Says Zach DePue, who moonlights with the bluegrassy Time for Three when he isn’t playing in the first violin section of the Philadelphia Orchestra: “Jen has breathed new life into modern classical music.  She speaks to the listener, without dumbing it down. I had the pleasure of playing the premiere of her Concerto for Orchestra, and the joyous response from the audience said it all. Not many composers can do that.  Most composers who have been able to do that are dead.”

In fact, Higdon takes it as a point of pride that her music is programmed alongside dead composers, rather than relegated to “new music” concerts. “When you write classical pieces, you want them to hold up, not only against your contemporaries, but against the classics.”

My hunch, and I’m not alone, is that Jennifer Higdon’s works will be programmed for generations to come. As we finish our hot chocolate, I can’t help remarking to her how her life story is almost like a fairy tale. How strange and unlikely that she’s made it so far along in the journey that eludes most composers from so-called musically advantaged backgrounds.

“It does blow my mind,” says Higdon. “It’s the mysterious spot in my life that doesn’t seem quite logical: why didn’t I become a painter, or a photographer, or even a film-scorer? But here I am. It’s as if I’m living out somebody else’s dream.”—K.R.

Share Button

    Related Posts

    Finding Nimo
    The Chip Zien Show
    Cardboard, Chicken Wire, and the Oxford Comma

    Leave a Reply