Pulitzer Prize-Winning Composer Jennifer Higdon Visits Montclair State

Photo: Mike Peters

Jennifer Higdon discusses her composition, "blue cathedral" with orchestra conductor Paul Hostetter at a rehearsal in the Kasser Theater.

Renowned composer and recent recipient of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in music, Jennifer Higdon, came to Montclair State University’s John J. Cali School of Music on April 19 to work with composition students and to rehearse her work, blue cathedral with the symphony orchestra. Higdon, who is the Milton L. Rock chair in composition studies at The Curtis Institute of Music, also met with faculty during her visit to the campus.

Already a 2010 GRAMMY winner for her composition, Percussion Concerto, Higdon received the Pulitzer Prize in music for her Violin Concerto, a work that had its premiere in February 2009 with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and soloist Hilary Hahn. Higdon’s works are performed regularly by orchestras around the world, with blue cathedral being one of the most performed contemporary orchestral works by an American composer in the United States.

“Having Jennifer Higdon on campus created tremendous excitement among our students,” said Paul Hostetter, director of the John J. Cali School of Music and conductor of the Montclair State University Symphony Orchestra. “She truly devoted a generous amount of time to give them a sense of her voice, ideas on career development, and a sense of their place and importance as artists within the broader musical world.”

Higdon met with music faculty and administrators before heading over to the state-of-the-art computer lab in Chapin Hall to work with composition students. She played a recording of one of her compositions, Zaka, as the students followed along in the score, then led a discussion about the work and talked about her own background and career. “You guys are ahead of me in school,” she admitted to the students. “I started late so I had to take all the remedial courses in college. But I never gave up and I never listened to the people who told me I couldn’t do it.”

The students also had the chance to share their compositions and have Higdon give comments and advice. “Very nice—very theatrical,” she said of composition student, Alyssa Menes’ piece. “Expand it some more!” She encouraged the students not to give up in following their passion. “You’re building a career brick by brick,” she told them. “Every experience is a brick and you add it to your brick pile. It takes a long time but if you stick to it, it will pay off for you.”

Thanks to Higdon’s visit, the Montclair State University Symphony Orchestra had the rare opportunity to receive feedback on the piece they were rehearsing from the composer herself. Higdon came to the Kasser Theater and sat in on a rehearsal of her work, blue cathedral, which the orchestra was refining for a concert later in the week.

After hearing the work played, Higdon offered some comments and recommendations that Hostetter and the orchestra incorporated into their interpretation of the work. “This is a breathing piece,” Higdon told the musicians. “A lot of my pieces sound like freight trains going at your head, but not this one.” By the end of the rehearsal, the orchestra had the piece to her liking. “Pretty impressive,” she said of their final rendition. “The pacing is great—it sounds good!”

See more photos from Jennifer Higdon's visit.