Special Week at Symphony

Participating in master classes was beneficial to contemporary American composer Jennifer Higdon during her student years, and she wants to return the favor when she serves as composer-in-residence with the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra in March.

The Pulitzer Prize winner is returning to Wheeling to hear the symphony perform her Concerto for Orchestra and to conduct master classes with composition students at West Liberty and West Virginia universities. In an innovative offering, she also will participate in a live webinar with high school students throughout the state and WLU students.

Higdon, who resides in Philadelphia, said she does between three and eight residencies a year with orchestras. This year, she has three orchestral residencies in Arkansas, Wheeling and Cincinnati. “I’m trying to stay on the lower side because I’m writing an opera right now,” she explained.

While master classes at universities are typical, the webinar format is a new concept for Higdon. “I haven’t done many over the Internet. That’s actually pretty new,” she remarked. “They actually do work, if they have Internet 2, which is a very, very high-speed line. I’ve done a couple of rehearsals in that manner in live time.”

During the residency week, Higdon and WSO Maestro Andre Raphel will participate in a town hall-style, free public meeting at the Capitol Theatre in Wheeling from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday, March 7. The composer and the conductor also will offer a free Concert Talk in the Capitol Theatre ballroom at 7 p.m. Friday, March 8, prior to orchestra’s 8 p.m. Masterworks concert. The concert, sponsored by Dick and Rosalie Dlesk and family, also is a performance of the College Concert Series presented by Wheeling Jesuit University.

Sponsors for the Higdon residency are the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, West Virginia Commission on the Arts, Judge and Mrs. Frederick P. Stamp Jr. and Women’s Philharmonic Advocacy.

The composer enjoys the interaction that occurs during her residencies. “I get to know the audience for the orchestra and the board members and students at the university. It’s a great way to develop relationships,” she said.

Higdon, who turned 50 on New Year’s Eve, attended master classes when she was a student and found it to be a valuable experience. “I remember that made quite an impression on me,” she said. “It’s good to know what’s going in on the active world. In school, you’re in kind of a different field. When you can meet someone who’s working in the field and you can ask questions, that’s a pretty invaluable thing.

“I think when you become a composer, it’s because you can’t do something else; you have to do this,” she commented. “Those residencies clarify how to make that happen. Residencies won’t give you the answer, (but) it will assist you in finding a way to make it occur. “

Raphel commented, “The composer residency by Jennifer Higdon represents a collaboration with one of America’s most important musical voices. With artistic focus on an exciting work of our time and opportunity for organizational growth, this residency creates a tangible connection between composer, orchestra and the community.”

The acclaimed composer is happy to return to Wheeling. “I’ve worked with this orchestra before so it’s kind of nice to come back,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to it. It’s going to be great … Andre Raphel is great to work with and the musicians are just phenomenal.”

Previously, the WSO performed Higdon’s Bluegrass Concerto. “It was great fun. It was wonderful. I’m really looking forward to coming back,” she said.

Excited about the performance of her newer work, she said, “This piece is a great way to show off the orchestra. It is a concerto for the orchestra … It does spolight the orchestra. They’re a great group.”

Higdon, who received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto, is currently writing an opera based on Charles Frazier’s book, “Cold Mountain.” The full-length opera is scheduled to be premiered by Santa Fe Opera in August 2015.

She is devoting all of her composing time to the project, which is her first opera. “It is the only thing,” she said. “I’ve been working on it for a solid year, all day, every day. Operas are big. They really take a tremendous amount of emotional energy. The opera is two and a half hours long, so it takes a lot of writing.

“I have a professional librettist who is writing the libretto. It’s a real back-and forth relationship,” she said, describing the process of making the words fit the musical lines. “You decide on what the story is first. You try to figure out an outline from the story.”

She explained, “‘Cold Mountain’ is a big book. You want the music to go by in two and a half hours. You have to figure out what to pull out and keep the story intact. We want to use Charles Frazier’s words in the best way,” she added, noting that it takes longer to sing lines than to speak the same amount of text.

In an opera project, the composer writes, then confers with the librettist. They, she said, decide issues such as “Do words need to be changed? Do certain lines have to be cut? The words have to come first.”

Higdon met with Frazier, the novelist, a couple of times. “He actually gave his blessings for us to do what we need to do. He totally trusts us,” she said. “That’s a blessing. That’s a pretty important thing.”

She added, “There was movie made out of that book about 10 years ago. He (Frazier) gave the director that same sort of liberty. He understands you have to make changes to make the story come across the same way.”

Working on deadline, she turned in the first act in December and is to finish writing this summer. “You have to do things really far in advance. It’s amazing how far in advance you have to do it,” she commented.

Higdon said she is “absolutely”‘ enjoying her work with the opera company. “It’s amazing how much back-and-forth there is. This is my first opera. There is so much discussion about singers, costumes, designs. It takes that much time; there’s so much work that needs to be done,” she remarked.

Normally, Higdon writes between eight and 12 pieces on commission each year, but she has foregone that work to concentrate on the opera project. “I know it’s a large chunk of time. Basically, I’ve cordoned off three years of my schedule. I’m not writing anything but the opera,” she said.

“It’s actually really rewarding. It’s been amazing to me how incredible it is. You’re responsible for creating the emotional content of a scene,” Higdon commented. “I love the book, which is a good thing. You live with the book for several years, in a very intense way. You definitely want to do it justice and you want to honor the author’s work.”

Looking ahead, Higdon, who also holds the Milton L. Rock Chair in Composition Studies at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, is now receiving commissions for work from 2015 to 2017.

She has been asked to write a viola concerto for the Library of Congress to celebrate the anniversary of old violas in its collection. “I think that’s scheduled for fall of 2015. I’ll probably be writing it in January 2015. Boy, it never stops,” she remarked.

Of working virtually nonstop, she said, “That’s part of being a composer, being willing to be in that position. Once I won the Pulitzer, everyone was looking at what I was doing. The expectation was kind of high.”

Now, she said, “I’ve had a couple of years to adjust to the pressures (of being a Pulitzer Prize winner), so that’s made it a little easier to adjust to the other pressures.”

Helping to ease the pressure for the composer is her cat, Beau, who assumes a prominent place in her promotional photograph. “He is quite famous,” Higdon said, laughing, “He gets his own fan mail. He has a lots of demands because of that photo.”

She quipped, “He does help me a lot. He does spend a lot of time with his eyes closed.”

On the day of the photo shoot, Beau happened to walk through the area and right into camera range. “The photographer shot the picture and said, ‘It’s too bad, his eyes were closed.’ He (Beau) turned right around and came back. The second photo was just fine,” Higdon recalled.

“I love that picture,” she remarked, adding, “He’s my moral support. He steps in and gives me suggestions or creates a diversion and allows me to pet him.”

Beau, who was adopted from a shelter, is 8 years old. “He’s very friendly, but he’s got some serious attitude. He’s got to be on everything,” Higdon quipped.