Classical CD Reviews

JENNIFER HIGDON – “An Exhaltation of Larks” – An Exaltation of Larks; Scenes From the Poet’s Dreams; Light Refracted – Gary Graffman, p./ Todd Palmet, clar. /Blair McMillen, p. /The Lark Quartet – Bridge

A disc of programmatic contemporary chamber music that’s tonal, well-crafted and cleverly written. But will it stand the test of time?

Published on April 20, 2013

JENNIFER HIGDON – “An Exaltation Of Larks” – An Exaltation of Larks; Scenes From the Poet’s Dreams; Light Refracted – Gary Graffman, piano/ Todd Palmet, clarinet /Blair McMillen, piano /The Lark Quartet – Bridge 9379, 55:20, [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Leonard Bernstein’s dramatic persona loved to conduct music connected to events and objects in our world, and in his 1958 televised Young People’s Concert presentation, “What Does Music Mean,” the maestro defines and conducts different examples of ‘program music.’ He then declares that all these associated ideas or programs mean nothing – what matters is how the notes engage the listener and makes him/her feel. This CD contains music that is associated with birds, poetry and light. But can the music stand alone without the ‘programs’?

Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962) writes tonal music known for its brilliant sense of color, exciting rhythms and mercurial shifting textures. She’s one of America’s most performed composers – her tone poem Blue Cathedral (a musical portrait of her brother, who died of cancer) has received over 400 performances by orchestras. In 2010 her Violin Concerto received the Pulitzer Prize and the Concerto for Orchestra made a big impression on critics and audiences in 2004. Higdon is Chair of Compositional Studies at Curtis Institute of Music and has served as composer-in-residency for many orchestras.

An Exaltation of Larks (2005) is a 15-minute tone poem for string quartet that was inspired by someone who told the composer that a group of larks is called an exaltation. “What a sound an exaltation of larks must make,” Higdon exclaimed. This musical tone poem alternates between lyrical moments – very beautiful – and spirited interludes (violin trills, quickening tempi) that suggest an energetic exaltation of larks ascending and descending as they fly. Structurally amorphous, there’s little for the musical mind to hold onto, but, then perhaps that’s the nature of an exaltation of larks.

Scenes From the Poet’s Dreams (1999), is a piano quintet for the left hand, with each of the five movements representing a dream: “Racing Through the Stars,” “I saw Electric Insects Coming,” and “The Fast Dancers Dance Faster,” are three where the tempo and the music sounds like it’s a programmatic descriptor. Especially nightmarish are the electric insects. However, the slower movements “Summer Shimmers Across the Glass of Green Ponds,” and “In the Blue Fields They Sing” are lovely, heartfelt, colorful and of considerable contrapuntal interest. They could stand alone without their descriptors. The excellent pianist is Gary Graffman, known for his superb piano discs (1940-77) and his years with the Curtis Institute of Music (President from 1995 – 2006).

Light Refracted (2002) for clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano is a “meditation on light” in which Higdon explores how different effects of light might translate into music. The first movement explores how we take light in (Inward) and the second how we “project light into the world” (Outward). Inward has the cello and viola spinning numerous but elusive melodies punctuated by dreamy piano chords, with some dissonant anxiety added at the end. Higdon’s ingenious and extroverted pyrotechnics make Outward play as if the character is again experiencing electric insects.

The music on this disc is engaging, and most of it benefits from it being externally referenced to a program. Yet, some of it feels as if it is superficially attached to its program. I can understand why Higdon is a popular composer – the music is tuneful, clever, and well-crafted and goes down easy upon first hearing. Time will tell if there’s enough musical substance here to sustain repeated hearings. The performances of the Lark Quartet are excellent, and the sound is close but resonant.

—Robert Moon




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