By David Patrick Stearns
October 23 , 2006
With composers as prolific as Philadelphia-based Jennifer Higdon, even the best will sometimes toss off chamber works that boast of little more than a deadline met and an audience reasonably charmed. But all that I've heard from Higdon is the antithesis of disposability.
Her new violin sonata, String Poetic, commissioned by the Kimmel Center and premiered on Saturday by Jennifer Koh, means to be absorbing for performers; desirable for audiences who think anything contemporary is abrasive; and useful, with most of the five movements so self-contained they can be played out of context, whether for encores or curtain raisers.
The music's solidity and inspiration are on such a high level as to eclipse established works that also were in the program, such as Francis Poulenc's Violin Sonata and John Adams' Road Movies. Indeed, String Poetic settled comfortably in, creating a lyrical counterpoint to excerpts from Gyorgy Kurtag's exclamatory Signs, Games and Messages and establishing friendly kinship with Lou Harrison's neglected, remarkable Grand Duo.
The concert opened the Kimmel's Fresh Ink series in all the right ways: Violinist Koh, a Curtis Institute graduate, and pianist Keiko Uchida are congenial, accomplished performers, and the program stretched the status quo without trashing it.
Higdon's piece ended the concert, the first and last of its five movements being fast and dense, the final one brimming with cross-rhythms played with witty crispness. In other movements, a lyrical "Nocturne" unfolded like an endless song, sustaining itself in ways that defy explanation, followed by "Blue Hills of Mist," a section full of alluring events, such as violin and piano conversing in secret code, the former in pizzicato and the latter with dampened strings, ultimately becoming synchronized.
Though the classical world tends to suspect modern music specialists like Koh as lacking the chops or depth for traditional repertoire, her performance of Higdon, Harrison and Poulenc had the sort of smart conception, attractive tone and passionate manner that would benefit any repertoire. In Harrison's Grand Duo, which Koh plans to record along with Higdon, she created four hugely different musical worlds corresponding to the demands of each of the movements.
How many concerts give you so much to think about?
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