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Concert preview: Jennifer Higdon’s ‘The Singing Rooms’ to bow at Carnegie Hall

The 180 members of New York Choral Society’s chorus led by conductor David Hayes
The 180 members of New York Choral Society’s chorus led by conductor David Hayes
Photo by Juergen Frank

New York gets the chance to hear two large-scale works Tuesday, April 29, at 8:00 p.m., when conductor David Hayes leads the 180 talented voices of the New York Choral Society and Orchestra presenting “The Singing Rooms,” by Jennifer Higdon, at Carnegie Hall. Violinist Jennifer Koh solos with the ensemble. The other piece on the program, “The Hymn of Jesus”—not a sacred piece, but a response to great suffering (Gustav Holst’s artistic and philosophical response to the Battle of the Somme)— provides the chance to hear a rarity composed soon after “The Planets.”

Jennifer Higdon is a rare modern phenomenon: a living composer who actually makes a living composing. She spoke with Thursday, April 24, with a charming southern accent and a ready laugh, providing unique insight into the composing process in general and the birth of “The Singing Rooms” in particular.

Where did the idea for “The Singing Rooms” come from? “I got the commission first,” says Jennifer Higdon, “then I had to search for the text.” Originally intended for solo violin and chorus, the work evolved into something much bigger at the suggestion of someone with the Philadelphia Orchestra, which commissioned the piece jointly with the Atlanta Symphony and Minnesota orchestras. Part of the commissioning process, violinist Jennifer Koh was, well, instrumental in upscaling “The Singing Rooms” to its present proportions.

How does a commission normally work? Jennifer Higdon’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning “Violin Concerto” started with a suggestion from the soloist, in this case Hilary Hahn. “You get to know the players, and they’re working with the orchestras, and they one day say, ‘You know, I’d really like a new violin concerto,’ and someone from the orchestra calls and says, ‘Would you be interested in writing a violin concerto?’ It actually all grows out of that.”

“The Singing Rooms” premiered with the Philadelphia Orchestra before the other two commissioning orchestras got their chance to perform it. Last year the Memphis Symphony obtained the score and performance rights, as did the Kansas City Symphony. “Now, in July, it’s being done in Paris as part of a gigantic choral festival commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day celebrations.”

How much time does the composer spend revising her works? “Fortunately for me, I don’t have to do it too much. I’m very lucky in the fact that I write every day, and I pretty much write all day every day, so I really work over the material.” In her case it’s more a matter of knowing when to pull an unsuccessful work that’s been premiered. “No one ever hears of those pieces that as it turns out didn’t work so well.”

“The Singing Rooms,” a 37-minute work, sets six poems by Jeanne Minahan in seven movements. No signs say it will need to be pulled from Jennifer Higdon’s published works. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has already recorded it on the Telarc label, and “for being such a large piece,” says the composer, “it really gets performed a lot.”

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