Blue Cathedral

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            Higdon is one of America’s leading composers of the last decade, enjoying wide recognition and commissions from a variety of distinguished symphony orchestras and virtuosi.  She has a degree in flute performance and was graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with an MA and a PhD.   She went on to study composition at the Curtis Institute; her composition teachers include the distinguished composers George Crumb and Ned Rorem.   A relatively late bloomer, she points to musical influences from Peter, Paul and Mary, the Beatles, and Simon and Garfunkel.  With four Grammy nominations under her belt, she is also a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her Violin Concerto.  It would be hard, indeed, to think of many contemporary American composers whose compositions are played more frequently than are hers.  She’s won just about every important award for music composition, and is a member of the faculty of the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

            Written in 1999, Blue Cathedral was commissioned for the 75th anniversary of the Curtis Institute.  Titles of musical compositions are often—most often it can seem—misleading, but this one is singularly apt.  Cast in a single short movement of lush, soothing cascades of orchestra sound, the over-used descriptor, “shimmering,” is more than apropos in this case.  Imaginative scoring for strings and delicate percussion—including exotic bells and water glasses—are the foundation for an evocation of the atmosphere of the title.  Short motives from various wind instruments provide aphoristic commentaries throughout, but generally without what would call “tunes.”  The whole weft of sound seems to gently and constantly float upward without having to start all over at the “bottom.”  It’s a remarkable and sensual musical experience, and justly deserves its popularity as perhaps the composer’s most performed composition.

            Higdon’s own words speak eloquently to her engagement with this thoughtful, spiritual work, and are a perfect complement to her musical voice:


I began writing this piece at a unique juncture in my life and found myself pondering the question of what makes a life. The recent loss of my younger brother, Andrew Blue, made me reflect on the amazing journeys that we all make in our lives, crossing paths with so many individuals singularly and collectively, learning and growing each step of the way. This piece represents the expression of the individual and the group... our inner travels and the places our souls carry us, the lessons we learn, and the growth we experience. In tribute to my brother, I feature solos for the clarinet (the instrument he played) and the flute (the instrument I play). Because I am the older sibling, it is the flute that appears first in this dialog. At the end of the work, the two instruments continue their dialogue, but it is the flute that drops out and the clarinet that continues on in the upward progressing journey.


--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2017 William E. Runyan