Composer Jennifer Higdon Talks About New Grammy Nods On Eve Of HSO's 'December Dreams'

On the Hartford Symphony Orchestra's "December Dreams" program, nestled snugly between selections from Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker" and William Henry Fry's "Santa Claus (Christmas Symphony)," is the shape-shifting, single-movement Oboe Concerto by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon. 

Higdon rarely takes a day off. After completing the Oboe Concerto in 2005, she went on a concerto-composing rampage: Percussion (also 2005), Piano (2006), Soprano Sax (2007, a re-working of the Oboe Concerto), Violin (2008, the composition that earned her the Pulitzer), Viola (2015), and a few others. She's written three this year.

The hard work hasn't gone unnoticed. A few days ago, Higdon's Viola Concerto, as performed by Roberto Diaz, Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony (for a Naxos recording), earned two more Grammy nominations (for Best Contemporary Classical Composition, an award she won in 2010; and as part of the Best Classical Compendium).

Principal oboist Heather Taylor, conductor Adam Boyles and the HSO will perform Higdon's Oboe Concerto at the Bushnell from Dec. 8 to 10. Higdon spoke to the Courant about the new Grammy nods and the Oboe Concerto's "buttery" history.

Q: Congrats on the Grammy nominations. How did you receive the news?

A: Usually if you're a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, they send out an email that says they'll be making the Grammy nomination announcement on a particular day. I think they posted it online on the Grammy site. I thought, "Oh, they're going to post the nominations today," so I went on to see what time. The nominations had just been put up. I found it online. It's amazing how many nominations there are, because there are so many categories. There's a lot of music out there.

Q: I guess I thought there would be a phone call or something.

A: No. The rock and roll people, the people who have agents, they probably have people who call them. In classical music, we're all doing it pretty much ourselves.

Q: You won a Grammy in 2009 for your Percussion Concerto, and you were nominated last year for the opera Cold Mountain. Does this year's nomination have the same flavor?

A: It always feels exciting, because I know how hard it is even getting a nomination. Part of it is I'm really excited for the performers. [The Viola Concerto] was commissioned by the Library of Congress, so they're really excited about that. But it's also the first recording of the orchestral version of the Oboe Concerto [on the same CD], so I'm excited. It gets the recording out more. Once it gets that nomination, people have a tendency to pick it up.

Q: As a composer, you spend much of your time thinking about the piece you're currently working on. But then someone like me rolls up and asks you about your Oboe Concerto, which was completed in 2005. Is it jarring to have to talk about a composition you wrote 12 years ago? Can you relate to the person who composed it?

A: I can. With more distance and time, it gets a little harder. The Oboe Concerto was one of the earlier concertos I did, and I've written a lot of concertos. I've written three in the past year. With time, you get a nice sort of distance, and you can look back at it. But to get from the point of writing the Oboe Concerto to now, it's still the same person writing the notes. They all seem connected.

I have had a major opera [Cold Mountain] in between the concertos this year and the Oboe Concerto, though, which probably obliterates some of my memories of writing the Oboe Concerto. An opera is such a massive thing. It's such intense writing. But I remember the joy of exploring the oboe sound and thinking, "What do I want to do with this instrument?"

Q: Are the compositional details still right there for you?

A: I remember the Minnesota Commissioning Club: this was an interesting group of people. It's a bunch of couples. I think it's, like, five couples, and they all just put money in. They go through all these composers and they figure out who they want to commission. As the composer, you meet with them and you talk to them about the piece. One of the things they said was that the oboist who this was written for, Kathy Greenbank, the principal oboist for the St. Louis Chamber Orchestra, her sound is just incredible. It sounds like butter, even when she's tuning up the orchestra. I thought, "Wow, that's kind of an interesting statement."

From that observation, I decided to begin the work very differently than a lot of concertos. It actually begins slowly. There's a held note in the oboe. It's not an A, which we usually use for tuning. It's actually a B-flat. But their comments and observations about this particular oboist made some of the decisions for me about what I wanted to do, in terms of shaping the concerto. It's also unusual to have a concerto that's all in one movement.

Q: Did you have a model in mind that sort of gave you permission to do that?

A: I like to break rules [laughs]. My brain sometimes wants to go in the other direction. There's also an endurance thing for oboists. It's very different than writing for, say, a violinist or pianist. Being aware of what you're putting the player through, in terms of the breathing and the amount of pressure they're exerting on that double reed, probably pushed me in the direction of doing a one-movement concerto.

MASTERWORKS SERIES: DECEMBER DREAMS takes place in the Belding Theater at the Bushnell in Hartford on Dec. 8 to 10 (8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday), with conductor Adam Kerry Boyles, oboist Heather Taylor and the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. Tickets start at $35. and 860-987-5900.

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