Inside A Composer’s World

As part of a residency week with the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra, celebrated American composer Jennifer Higdon offered music buffs an inside look into her busy, creative world.

Higdon, WSO Maestro Andre Raphel and Erika Donaghy, chair of the Wheeling Arts and Culture Commission, served as panelists for a town hall-style, free public meeting at the Capitol Theatre in Wheeling Thursday, March 7. They spoke of the importance of the arts and they offered insight into the role that a cultural treasure, such as the Capitol Theatre, plays in the process of making music and for the spirit of a community.

“The arts not only are the soul of a community, but also it is cohesive,” Donaghy commented, citing an amazing array of arts offerings in Wheeling.

Donaghy also pointed to the economic factor of the arts which, she said, produces $72.1 billion in annual revenue nationally. “Not only is art bringing that revenue in, but also it’s bringing people together,” she remarked.

Higdon, who made her second visit to Wheeling last week, also discussed the value of residencies. “When any composer can be there, it’s a good thing,” she said. “So much of the music that gets made is so old.”

But when an orchestra has a composer present, the musicians can ask questions of the writer and they have a “face” to put with the music, Higdon said. In turn, she related, the composer has interaction with the audience. “I think it’s kind of an imperative thing,” she remarked.

Higdon related that most of her life is spent alone, in the “solitary confinement” of writing. Thus, she appreciates and enjoys opportunities to meet and interact with musicians and audience members.

Observing an audience’s reaction to a piece is a valuable tool for a composer. “You can feel the energy drop when the composer loses the audience,” Higdon commented, adding, “It’s fascinating to see how people are taking it in.”

The composer said that “having the conversations” and seeing people whom she met in Wheeling five years ago constitutes “the best part of my job.”

Regarding the worth of facilities such as the Capitol, Raphel observed, “Concert halls are very much places that bring people together.”

Higdon agreed, saying, “Concert halls are different from place to place. There’s something special about a place like this (the Capitol) … It’s a shared experience in the community. I think gathering places are important.”

In a historic hall or theater like the Capitol, “I think you certainly draw inspiration from the stage,” Raphel remarked.

Donaghy, who recalled participating in a performance of “Carmina Burana” at the Capitol a decade ago, said historic, grand venues offer “an energy you can’t get anywhere else.”

She commented, “Creating arts spaces and preserving arts spaces like this are so important to the community.”

On a related note, Higdon pointed out, “History is being made now. History is being made every day there is an event here. History will occur here 10 years from now.”

Surveying the interior of the Capitol, Higdon said, “It’s so grand.” Upon seeing the restored theater, the Philadelphia resident said, “I think about the 16 movie palaces in Philadelphia that were torn down.”

During the town hall meeting, Higdon also described the process of writing the Concerto for Orchestra, which the Wheeling Symphony performed in a Masterworks concert Friday, March 8. The work was commissioned several years ago by the Philadelphia Orchestra.

The concerto’s third movement “showcases musicians in the orchestra with various solos,” Higdon said. She explained that a musician requested a solo, and that other requests followed. “I kept a grocery list of solo requests,” she quipped, adding, “That whole movement grew out of that simple request.”

Likewise, when a timpanist wanted to play in the percussion section, it gave Higdon an idea to feature percussion in the fourth movement. Saying “I try to have at least one challenge in each work,” Higdon said her writing for the fourth movement includes the “interesting effect” of having the work speed up at various points, giving rise to an “image of a Victrola revving up.”

For the fifth, and final, movement, she wanted to add some “swing,” which she accomplished by making the tempo double during the movement. “It gets rolling there,” she said, adding, “I love going to the movies. Probably there’s some Alfred Hitchcock influence there … (the feeling) of being chased by a plane.”

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