“Shine” Puts Young Composer in the Spotlight

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It was a tough assignment even for a composer who had already fulfilled dozens of commissions: Create an orchestral piece to commemorate a prolific, prizewinning American composer and a century-old orchestra.
Dr. Jennifer Higdon, Gr’94, professor of music theory at the Curtis Institute of Music, met that challenge, and her resulting work, “Shine” (no relation to the movie by the same name) was recently recognized by USA Today as the “best new piece” of 1996 in classical music.

USA Today wrote in its review that Higdon’s “Shine” — performed last year at Indiana State University’s Festival of Contemporary Music — “bubbles over with color, rhythm, high spirits and invention, often sounding like Bartok’s ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ at warp speed, but with a personality of its own.”

Higdon, 34, says, “I was really flattered by being compared to [Hungarian composer Bela] Bartok in the first place. He’s one of the best composers in this century. But a lot of my work tends to be at warp speed, so that part doesn’t surprise me.”

“Shine” actually was created in 1995, when Higdon was commissioned by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers to create a piece commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Oregon Symphony, as well as ASCAP’s past president, the late composer Morton Gould.

“I thought, ‘This is really difficult. How am I going to do this?’ So I thought about building some sort of sculpture to honor these things,” Higdon says. “I thought about all this energy all the musicians had put in through one hundred years and about how Morton Gould was really a multi-talented individual. If I could compress this into a sculpture, it would be a very bright piece. That’s how I came up with the name ‘Shine.'”

A piece of Higdon’s personal life went into the composition, as well. “At about the same time, my brother was diagnosed with cancer, and we weren’t sure if he was going to live. So this piece for me was really seizing at life,” she says. “That’s why I think the piece is so energetic. I was trying to grasp a lifetime in music, but in twelve minutes, basically.” Her brother has recovered and is now cancer free.

It took her about six work-packed weeks to compose “Shine,” which the Oregon Symphony performed at one of its concerts. The piece later won a competion and was performed at the Indiana State University music festival.

A self-described “late bloomer,” Higdon started teaching herself to play the flute at age 15 and didn’t receive formal music training until college. She was almost finished with her bachelor’s degree requirements at Bowling Green State University when she started learning composition. The energetic pace of “Shine” comes through in most of her pieces, Higdon says, attributing her musical style partly to her stint in her high school marching band. “My pieces tend to always have a strong pulse, I think.” Her other musical influences range from bluegrass, which she heard often in her native Tennessee, and rock, to the works of Bartok and Debussy. Higdon considers herself lucky to have received over 40 commissions since her composing career began. They come from sources as varied as people planning weddings to chamber music groups, she says.

After earning her doctorate in composition from Penn, Higdon had the chance to fill in as conductor of the University orchestra and wind ensemble. “Having the experience of being in front of the musicians and working with them was so rewarding,” she says. She has taught at Curtis for two years and continues to work on projects, including a piece she wrote for two flutes and percussive piano that just premiered at an international flute festival in Deeland, Florida, to enthusiastic reviews. Higdon also has a new compact disc, rapid.fire, released under the I Virtuosi label. The recording features her playing the flute on several of her scores.

Although Higdon wrote “Shine” a year before the movie by the same name was released, she does often field questions like, “Did you write the movie soundtrack?” She answers no, but admits the coincidence is a weird one. “It’s a little strange seeing ads for the movie everywhere. I feel like I’m looking at my piece.”

— By Susan Lonkevich

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