When I was an undergrad at the University of Oregon, Higdon came in with a residency with the Eugene Symphony. She was invited to present for a class I was taking as a freshman and it struck me—albeit nearly a decade later—that she did not present on the work the symphony was playing; her Concerto for Orchestra which put her on the map as a new force in the orchestral world, but rather opted to present the second movement of this work. At the time, I hated it and have no idea why. However, while in my doctorate and searching for works to perform with the Colorado New Music Ensemble, I came back to this piece and fell in love. It is charming, genius in its simplicity, and about as Higdon as you can imagine.
A Brief Overview of Higdon
Hailing from Brooklyn, NY, Higdon is one of the most performed contemporary American composers in the United States. She holds a degree in flute performance from Bowling Green State University, an MA and PhD from the University of Pennsylvania, and an Artist Diploma from the Curtis Institute. Her breakout piece is the stunning work Concerto for Orchestra (2002), which has lead to a number of other orchestral commissions across the country, including her Pulizer Prize winning Violin Concerto and her Grammy Award winning Percussion Concerto.
Despite all of that, it is VERY important to note that Higdon's musical growth was forged in her chamber music output and that she spent a great deal of her pre-concerto days sustaining herself on chamber work commissions. As a result—and in my humble opinion—Higdon's best, most inspired, and ingenious output is found in her chamber catalogue; something I am reminded of each time I dig deeper into that part of her repertoire and find myself maybe slightly tarnished by her larger orchestral works. Though I do love her Concerto for Orchestra, the inner three movements of which are particularly tasty, and the first movement of her Violin Concerto is a much needed reimagination on the standard sonata form concerto (admittedly, I liked the third movement of the piece until I realized that John Adams wrote it first, and better), her chamber works show a level of honesty and craft that cannot be hidden by the force of instruments, preventing her from the use of this weird planing pitch saturation thing that she does every time she has a huge tutti moment in one of her orchestral works.
A bit about the piece
Given the titles Pale Yellow and Fiery Red, I bet you can guess what the piece is about. Higdon herself asks the question, "can colors actually convey mood?" And while colors do have psychological links to emotions, both falsely perceived and scientifically legitimized, the fact that she modifies Yellow and Red with Pale and Fiery, respectively, she is already placing a filter of personality to use as a starting point. While the program notes give pretty standard composer fluff, I pick up a great deal of bare bones in this piece: the first movement is rife with directionless counterpoint, wrapped in a beautifully modal harmonic palette that seamlessly marries the length of the strings with the decaying ping of the piano. The second movement is a testament to her ability to make the instruments sound identical to create an undulating and exciting fabric of quick conversations. You really can see the budding seeds of a piece like Zaka buried in this trio, as well as her more elegant writing in the second movement of her Violin Concerto.