CD reviews: Music by composers with local connections

Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto. Violinist Hilary Hahn and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by Vasily Petrenko. 68 minutes. Deutsche Grammophon. Grade: B+

Jennifer Higdon, one of the Atlanta Symphony’s “Atlanta school” composers, is a volcano poised to erupt.

Highly industrious, she’s composed music for almost all the major genres. She won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in music, solidifying her credentials. Most revealingly, Higdon is among the most-performed living American composers -- musicians want to play her music and audiences want to hear it.

Two new CDs (also available as downloads) show Higdon at her considerable best -- while revealing how much more she’s got to grow as a communicator.

Soon after Robert Spano was named music director of the ASO, he brought Higdon into the family, performing and recording her major works. The latest came in June with the world premiere of “On a Wire,” for the ASO and the new-music ensemble Eighth Blackbird as soloists. A brilliant craftswoman with panache, Higdon had the audience euphoric by the end.

The ASO’s latest CD holds three works. It documents a March 2009 concert in Symphony Hall of Higdon’s “The Singing Rooms,” Atlanta composer Alvin Singleton’s “PraiseMaker” and Alexander Scriabin’s classic “Poem of Ecstacy.”

“The Singing Rooms” is an unusual and ungainly violin concerto with chorus and orchestra -- about 300 people onstage -- created for the brilliant young violinist Jennifer Koh. Her violin offers running commentary and gorgeous embellishment on Jeanne Minahan’s disparate poems, sung by the ASO Chorus as homophonic lines, where everyone sings the same words without counterpoint.

There’s much beauty within the concerto’s seven sections, but Higdon reaches for too many climaxes and overstuffs the work without giving it an emotional core. It’s fatiguing to listen to.

Singleton is perhaps the most internationally recognized composer in Atlanta. Born in Brooklyn, Singleton moved here in 1985 after years in Europe to become the ASO’s composer-in-residence under Robert Shaw. Although he is not officially in Spano’s so-called “Atlanta school of composers,” the ASO will premiere a major new Singleton work in June.

“PraiseMaker” premiered in Cincinnati in 1998. The 21-minute score, on poems by Susan Kouguell, is homophonic (like the Higdon) but uses that simplicity as a virtue, building up a raw and concentrated spiritual intensity, with flashes of rage. The opposite of “The Singing Rooms,” Singleton’s music here makes a potent impact from a limited palette.

People who say Spano isn’t deepening as an interpreter of standard repertoire -- a complaint heard more outside Atlanta than locally -- need to hear his “Poem of Ecstasy,” a voluptuous, orgasmic 21-minute symphony. His reading is urgent, tightly wound and lucid as it unspools. The ASO seethes and surges and plays with an easy, understated virtuosity. I'd mark it one of the best Spano-ASO performances on CD.

The other new disc, on the major Deutsche Grammophon label, has star violinist Hilary Hahn as the marquee name on the cover, with Higdon and Tchaikovsky listed below.

Like the best of her music, Higdon’s Pulitzer-winning Violin Concerto hooks you immediately. It’s an old-timey concerto in structure and attitude with virtuoso flourishes and intriguing novelty sounds, like the ethereal harmonics that open the work, or snatches of exotic percussion. The writing for solo violin is intricate and always lovely, now tender and flowing, now brash and bold.

Higdon’s orchestra is muscular. Conducted by Vasily Petrenko, the concerto sounds like it’s already in the repertoire.

And that’s the thing about Higdon: She writes music that sounds a lot like music we already know and love. One suspects there’s much more ready to explode from her creative psyche.

Pierre Ruhe is classical music critic of www.ArtsCriticATL.com.

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