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December 4, 2009

National Symphony premieres Higdon Piano Concerto on colorful program

Jennifer HigdonIf there were such a title as "The People's Composer" in this country, Jennifer Higdon would be on the short list for receiving it.

She writes in an extraordinarily communicative manner, but without the slightest hint of pandering. There's something very American in the sound of her music, and something I'm tempted to call joyful -- not in terms of what is expressed (Higdon's works cover a wide range of moods), but in how it is expressed.

She is a composer in love with composing. And her new Piano Concerto, given its premiere by the National Symphony Orchestra Thursday night with Yuja Wang as soloist and Andrew Litton conducting, exudes that enthusiasm in every one of the 19,000-plus notes of the solo part and who knows how many orchestral ones. (Higdon provided the piano total during a pre-performance onstage chat with Litton -- a chat curiously and regrettably short on details about the music itself, which, I imagine, the audience would have appreciated.)

The concerto is big in structure and gesture, with three eventful movements. A soft-hued, rather jazzy keyboard passage sets the work in motion. The piano proceeds to engage in a vigorous dialogue with the orchestra throughout the first movement, which is punctuated by fluttering horn riffs and a striking, march-like theme that makes a few telling appearances. There's a substantial cadenza, and an unexpected, exquisitely subtle ending. On first hearing, the second movement seems

a little padded with material, but there are many arresting features as Higdon makes effective use of piquant chromaticism. The finale, in the grand concerto tradition, goes for bravura above all else. It's an exhilarating ride.

Yuja Wang gave a brilliant performance of the new piece. As the Chinese-born pianist, barely into her 20s, demonstrated in her appearances with the Baltimore Symphony (especially a spectacular Prokofiev 1 in 2008), she is not just another excellent technician. She's got something deeper and imaginative going on, and it came through vividly here.

Litton was a fully supportive presence on the podium, coaxing an alert, vibrant response from the NSO. Assorted scheduling conflicts have kept me from hearing the orchestra for quite a long while now. This occasion provided reaffirmation of the basic strengths of the ensemble, especially the warm and supple strings.

Litton, whose early years included a stint as an assistant conductor at the NSO, was in great form throughout the colorful program, which surrounded the Higdon premiere with two Russian gems that don't get a lot of attention. The Suite from Rimsky-Korsakov's "The Snow Maiden," full of delectable tunes and tones, was sensitively shaped.

Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1 closed the concert. If the composer had stopped writing symphonies after this, he'd still have left a notable mark. Maybe the finale wanders a bit and doesn't quite know when to quit, but what a wealth of melody and instrumental vitality there is in this early gem, which Tchaikovsky titled "Winter Daydreams" and which provides a rich foretaste of his famed ballets.

Litton drew out the score's beauty and charm most engagingly, allowing lyrical phrases to breath and adding extra bite when the music kicked into high gear. A few minor smudges aside, the NSO performed superbly, with alternately gossamer and velvety playing from the strings (the violas shone wonderfully in the Adagio), and lots of character in the brass and winds (the oboe soloist in that Adagio did eloquent work). Litton and his colleagues underlined why this symphony deserves to be heard much more often.

The program repeats Friday afternoon (if you're not already walking into the Kennedy Center lobby, you've missed it -- sorry to be late posting this) and Saturday night. Well worth the trip.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:44 AM | | Comments (1)


Here's my review:

I have no idea why I disliked the Higdon and everyone else liked it. Well, I try to explain why, but me being the only sourpuss about it is kind of mystfying to me.

As someone who has often been in the minority of critical opinion, I know what you mean. But all we can ever do is call 'em like we hear 'em. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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