Monday, April 12, 2010

Lesbian Wins Pulitzer Prize

The 2010 Pulitizer prizes were announced today. As I was reading through the list, I came across a familiar name. I interviewed Jennifer Higdon years ago for an article in Curve magazine. Now she won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for her "Violin Concerto." I remember that she was very charming and had a sweet Southern accent.

Here is the article I wrote for Curve magazine back in 2004. I think it might have been my first article for them.
Classical Composure
By Kathy Belge

Jennifer Higdon’s partner had a premonition something big was about to happen. In a vivid dream, an older woman came to Cheryl Lawson and said, “Do you realize your life is about to change?” A few weeks later in June, 2002, Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra premiered at the Philadelphia Orchestra. The work was received with a level of enthusiasm rare in the classical music world, complete with hoots and whistles. Even Higdon is puzzled by the reception to her work. “I’m still kind of scratching my head and going, ‘Wow’,” she says.

Concerto for Orchestra has been performed nine times since its premiere, quite a feat. “It’s very, very, very, very unusual,” Higdon says. “I mean, in the history of music. Normally a piece will have to be out a long time before people will start picking it up.”

Higdon herself is quite an anomaly, too. The girl from Tennessee didn’t even pick up an instrument until high school. While most of her contemporaries were weaned on the likes of Tchaikovsky and Bach, Higdon grew up listening to The Beatles and Fleetwood Mac. Which could also be why her music is so accessible.

For all of her accomplishments, Higdon is equally accessible. I caught up with her when, iced in from a winter storm, she had to make a stop on her way to a concert in Eugene, Oregon. Her southern accent, peppered with words like gee and gosh, made me feel as if we could just sit down and chat about anything. Her enthusiasm for her work bubbles out and it’s easy to understand why she is one of the most popular teachers at the prestigious Curtis Institute, where she teaches composition. “I feel very lucky to be there,” she says. “It’s like a family. It’s very small and everyone knows everyone. It’s not a dysfunctional family,” she laughs.

Though Higdon may have been the black sheep in her family of origin, she certainly has found a home in Philadelphia, where she and her partner Lawson can often be found walking down the street hand in hand, attending concerts or going to movies. She said it never occurred to her not to be out and so far it has not hurt her career at all. “Maybe it’s because classical music has a real history with gay male composers,” she says. But, she notes, “there aren’t that many lesbian classical composers.”
And she is well aware that she is a role model for other women in a field dominated by men. “I know that women who came before me had a really rough time and a lot of them paved the way for people like me,” she says. “Little old ladies come and say, ‘Honey, I love that you’re a woman.’”

Today Higdon and Lawson, a professional meeting planner, spend a lot of time on the road traveling to music festivals and performances. More and more, Higdon is being recognized as a celebrity. People come up to her on the street and in restaurants. “It startles me,” she says.

This summer, on their way to a Vail music festival, a woman sat next to Higdon and Lawson on an airplane and started telling them of an interview she heard on the radio about a new classical piece called blue cathedral. When Lawson pointed out that she was sitting next to the woman in the interview, “The lady completely freaked out,” Higdon says. “It was really, really funny.”

Much of Higdon’s writing takes place in hotel rooms these days. There’s a variety to her work that she loves, everything from commissions for the Atlanta Symphony to a junior high school band.

At age 41, Higdon’s accomplishments seem astounding. Last year she wrote commissions for The Brooklyn Philharmonic, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the National Symphony. She was the first female composer in residence at Tanglewood. And she’s been with her partner for 23 years. Yes, they met in high school band.

The two love to travel. A few months back they were driving along the back roads of Georgia when, “We actually ran across the little bitty town and the little bitty street of Fried Green Tomatoes. … The café is still there. We had a piece of pie.”
But the big news these days is the release of her CD by Telarc last March. The Atlanta Symphony recorded Concerto for Orchestra and Cityscape, a 30-minute symphony she wrote about Atlanta, a town where she once lived. “I have to say, I was quite blown away by [the recording],” she says. “The conductor Robert Spano did a fabulous job of interpreting the work.”
In addition to her major commissions, Higdon makes time to compose for the community. She wrote Freedom Dreams for the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band in celebration of families of choice. One of its movements, Freedom March, is performed quite often by gay and lesbian bands. These days she writes pretty much what ever she’s commissioned to write. Higdon has no time for writer’s block. As a matter of fact she says, “Sometimes I’m getting the brochure in the mail and it says ‘Announcing a premiere work by Jennifer Higdon’ and I haven’t even started it yet. You definitely have to get that kind of thing going very fast.”

Where does she get her inspiration? “Most of my inspiration come from thinking about the groups I’m writing for,” she says. But, coming from a family of visual artists seems to influence her as well. “There’s a really strong image in my head of something to look at when I’m writing,” she says. “It inspires the music. There’s almost always a graphic picture in my head.”

As for the future, Higdon, a self-described movie buff, hopes one day to compose for the big screen. “I figure if it’s supposed to happen it will on its own accord,” she says. And with her you get the feeling it will.


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