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Cliburn at the Modern spotlights Pulitzer-winning composer, teacher

Posted 3:16pm on Sunday, Apr. 06, 2014

Saturday’s Cliburn at the Modern program spotlighted the busy Jennifer Higdon (she’s booked up through 2020 with her commissions alone). She’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who teaches composition at the prestigious Curtis Institute.

Like all guests in this Cliburn series, she was present in the auditorium of the Modern Art Museum to chat with moderator Shields-Collins Bray and listen to performances of some of her music.

As usual, the chat went very well. Buddy Bray is a real asset for this series. He’s laid-back and witty and has a knack for putting his guests at ease. As the principal keyboard player of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, he’s also very knowledgeable.

Higdon is also down-to-earth and pleasant, and imparted some interesting insights. For instance, it’s scarier to compose for a junior high school orchestra — which she has done — than for the Chicago Symphony — which she has also done. With the kids, the composer has to be careful not to exceed their technical limitations.

Higdon recently completed an opera that presented its own problems not present when writing instrumental music. For instance, the opera composer has to be concerned with creating a sense of character through music. Also, there are such technical matters as leaving time for costume changes.

Higdon’s opera Cold Mountain will be premiered in Santa Fe, N.M., in the summer of 2015.

The performance part of Saturday’s program included three works of widely varying character. Bray moved from the microphone to the piano for all three of them.

He was joined by violinist Swang Lin and clarinetist Daryl Coad for Dash, which proved to be appropriately named. The key characteristics of the work are energy and speed, which impart exhilaration and even a sense of nervousness to the proceedings. The piano was dominant, though there were brief opportunities in this short piece for the violin and clarinet to show their stuff.

Higdon’s Clarinet Sonata was played by Coad and Bray. This was a more substantial work in two movements. The first was solemn, in contrast to Dash. It began with a dreamy episode for piano, then transitioned into a more equal relationship, with a cadenza for clarinet. The second movement was jazzy and propulsive, though there was a thoughtful piano episode at the end.

The final work of the afternoon — and the most appealing — was Higdon’s Piano Trio, with cellist Leda Larson joining Bray and Lin. It has two movements, which Higdon titles “Pale Yellow” and “Fiery Red.” This is a well-balanced work for all three instruments. “Pale Yellow” is kind of mournful in character, while “Fiery Red” seems angry, with frenzied tempos and jerky rhythms.

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