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Out of the Box: Jennifer Higdon's Most Recent Grammy-Winner

Composer Jennifer Higdon wearing all black leaning against a multi-color wall
Andrew Bogard
Composer Jennifer Higdon

Come and explore the 'lyrical, feisty, and energetic' harp concerto by a giant voice of American contemporary composition, featuring the superlative harpist Yolanda Kondonassis!

WHAT: Jennifer Higdon, Harp Concerto / Yolanda Kondonassis, harp with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra & War Stare

WHY THIS MUSIC: Before this piece won the 2020 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition, I was unaware of it, and so wanted to explore it together.

This week's broadcast is no longer available on-demand. 

This Out of the Box project has been about exploring the new and the newly released. When Jennifer Higdon’s Harp Concerto won the 2020 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition, I took note and made sure it would be part of Out of the Box in March.

Now (and I hope you’ll forgive my honesty here) I’m a little ashamed to admit that while Jennifer Higdon is one of the giants of the contemporary classical composition world, with three Grammy Awards and a Pulitzer Prize under her belt since 2009, I was less than knowledgeable on her music before exploring the harp concerto. I’m sure I’m not alone.

And I would also like to say, after having enjoyed it, that ignorance is not bliss: the removal of the blind fold of ignorance is.

Jennifer Higdon’s Harp Concerto was written for Yolanda Kondonassis and co-commissioned by no less than six American orchestras – the Rochester Philharmonic, Harrisburg Symphony, Baton Rouge Symphony, Fargo-Moorhead Symphony, and Lansing Symphony Orchestras, and the Oklahoma City Philharmonic,.

Doesn’t get much more American than that.

And the harp concerto does have a distinctly American feel to it, though what that means is hard to pin-point. It’s gentle and introspective, playful and mischievous, epic and triumphant… and that’s just the first movement!

Harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, playing her harp, eyes closed
Credit Mark Battrell
Harpist Yolanda Kondonassis

This is how harpist Yolanda Kondonassis put it:

“We agreed on many aspects of what a new harp concerto should be – strong, agile, lyrical, feisty, energetic and even heroic when necessary; it should be challenging, but really fun to play, and it should have a groove that allows the harpist to catch a musical wave with the orchestra once in a while.

“Jennifer managed all this and more, delivering a work that is all at once powerful, heart-wrenching, whimsical, and original.”

It's been a joy to start my journey with Higdon's music, late though I am to the game. In addition to the Harp Concerto, I highly recommend a chamber album released by the Lark Quartet in 2013 called "An Exaltation of Larks", as well as her Alto Saxophone Sonata.

Also, there's a great 2009 NPR interview between Higdon and conductor Marin Alsop discussing the issue of representation for women composers and conductors in the classical music world. I highly recommend taking 12 minutes to listen it!

Chris Voss is the Weekday Afternoon Host and a Producer for CRB.