Philadelphia composer Jennifer Higdon took the stage at The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Free College Concert last fall to make an unusual request: Please turn your cell phones ON. Her immensely popular blue cathedral was on the program that night as the Orchestra road tested its new LiveNote app, which provides real-time program notes for smart phones and tablets. And her Pulitzer Prize-winning Violin Concerto is part of the latest LiveNote Nights Concert on February 25. Higdon’s a fan of the technology.
Photo: Candace diCarlo
“I think it’s fantastic!” she says. “One of the things that’s really great about LiveNote is the fact that you’re getting an insight into the piece. And because music education has changed in the general school system and people don’t get the kind of information about classical music that they used to … this is kind of a way to do that. It’s not a complete education, but it is interesting for people to see what was going on when the piece was written, what different parts of the music represent. Things like that.”
Is it a distraction?
“Even during other concerts, people have their phones out anyway!” she says, laughing. “It may be a distraction for some, but the fact of the matter is, the phones are out one way or the other.”
Higdon is an avid concertgoer as well as a prolific composer. Among her observations: Audiences seem to be gravitating toward earlier and shorter concerts (the kind offered in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s LiveNote Nights.) And, there seems to be a growing affinity for “new” music.
“I actually find that the audiences are really open to it,” Higdon says. “I hear them asking administrators, ‘Why aren’t you doing more new music?’ … It used to be an issue. I don’t think it is anymore.”
Consider blue cathedral: “That piece is so popular. It gets done everywhere. Every weekend some orchestra somewhere on the planet is doing it,” she says. “It’s kind of amazing!”
blue cathedral and the Violin Concerto are both on this week’s subscription program in a series of performances that will be a bit of a reunion for those with ties to the Curtis Institute of Music, including Higdon (a graduate, now on the faculty), soloist Benjamin Beilman (a graduate), conductor Robert Spano (on the faculty), and, of course, numerous members of the Orchestra.
“It’s amazing for me to look in the Orchestra and say, oh that person was in my class at Curtis. And that person was in my class,” says Higdon. “I think they have a good sense of my music. … It makes for a good working relationship.
“I'm thrilled to work with Robert Spano again,” she adds. “He was my teacher, in my undergrad in conducting, so there’s a longtime connection there with him. And Ben was part of the initial readings we did at Curtis of the [Violin Concerto] when we were trying to adjust the orchestration. He was on the first stand, second violin. So it’s amazing to see him out front playing this Concerto.”
A couple fun facts: The Violin Concerto’s first movement is named “1726” after the school’s address at 1726 Locust Street. And then there’s the cadenza, which Higdon thinks is the hardest ever written in a violin concerto. Beilman, she says, agrees.
“I asked him: ‘Do you think this is the hardest cadenza?’ I said this is the hardest I know, but I’m not a violinist. He said, ‘Yeah, it’s definitely the hardest!’
“Ben Beilman sounds great playing it!” she adds. “He’s a wonderful violinist.”
You can learn more about LiveNote Nights and purchase tickets for the February 25 concert here, and for the February 26-28 subscription concerts here. And don’t miss hearing more from Higdon—in person—at the top of the LiveNote Nights concert and in PreConcert conversations prior to the subscription concerts.