The 2016–17 academic year brought composer Jennifer Higdon to the UMKC Conservatory as the Barr Institute Laureate, serving two one-week residencies. The Patricia and Howard Barr Institute for America Composition studies was launched in 2004, and is the fulfillment of a longtime dream of Howard (DMA, 1971) and Patricia Barr. The Institute celebrates their love of American music and their dedication to its continuing study and performance.
Dr. Jennifer Higdon is one of America’s most acclaimed and most frequently performed living composers. Her Percussion Concerto won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition in January 2010, and her Violin Concerto received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music, with the committee citing Higdon’s work as “a deeply engaging piece that combines flowing lyricism with dazzling virtuosity.”
Higdon’s first visit September 27–30, 2016, was spent in rehearsal with a number of the Conservatory’s ensembles as they prepared for performances of her works. The Conservatory Wind Symphony, directed by Steven D. Davis, performed her virtuosic Oboe Concerto with Celeste Johnson, a recent addition to the Conservatory faculty. Members of the Conservatory Singers performed her arrangement of O Magnum Mysterium on the September 30 Musica Nova concert, and the Conservatory Wind Ensemble, directed by Joe Parisi, performed Road Stories, a piece Higdon composed for concert band, on its first concert of the fall semester.
Other fall semester events included a panel discussion, “Artistic Creation in the 21st Century” along with William D. and Mary Grant/Missouri Professor of Jazz Studies Bobby Watson, and forums with undergraduate and graduate-level composition students.
Spring brought Dr. Higdon back to campus, with another week-long visit March 13–17, 2017, culminating with the Collegiate Band Directors National Association (CBDNA) Conference, hosted by Steven D. Davis and the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance. In addition to working with students in rehearsals, for this second visit Dr. Higdon did a number of seminars with Conservatory students, CBDNA participants and the UMKC community.
The week started with the UMKC Percussion Ensemble, which performed her Splendid Wood in the fall semester and were working toward a performance of her piece Zones, an exciting work she wrote early in her career for percussion ensemble and electronics. Higdon also spent time this residency with the UMKC opera scenes program, coaching both performers and student composer Vince Gover (DMA, composition), whose newest opera, This Little Piggy, was workshopped by the group.
A master class with Words + Music, a collaborative ensemble between the UMKC Conservatory, The Coterie and the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, was one of the many evening events held throughout the week.
While on campus, Dr. Higdon also engaged with the larger campus community in a lecture sponsored by the UMKC LGBTQIA+ organization. This talk, “Inspiration Through Love,” discussed the history of gays, lesbians and women in classical music, and how identity has affected and inspired art making.
Other spring highlights included the lecture “Writing an Opera: Cold Mountain” with Conservatory students enrolled in Musicianship IV, in which she discussed her two-year process writing her first opera and the effect it had on both her professional and personal life, and a seminar with graduate conducting students titled “The World of Conducting from a Composer’s Perspective,” where she discussed the similarities and differences between orchestral, choral and wind ensemble composition.
Dr. Higdon’s orchestral composition, blue cathedral, is one of her most well-known and most widely performed works, and she gave a lecture to a combined section of Late Music History and Research students on her journey writing the piece. Blue cathedral is dedicated to the memory of her brother and was commissioned by the Curtis Institute of Music for its 75th anniversary in 1999. After the premiere and success of the piece, Higdon joined the faculty of the Curtis Institute.
Finally, as part of the CBDNA Conference, Higdon hosted the Forum on Women Composers along with Dr. Chen Yi, the UMKC Conservatory’s Lorena Searcy Cravens/Milsap/Missouri Distinguished Professor of Composition and Dr. Carolyn Barber from the University of Nebraska.
This was the first of a two-year laureateship for Dr. Higdon, and the Conservatory looks forward to her return in the fall.