Nashville — When I created my Music Spotlight column that would tell an artist’s “where they came from” story, never did I ever imagine interviewing the three-time Grammy-winning and 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer Jennifer Higdon. However, Nashville’s Symphony Publicist Dave Felipe advised that I needed to hear her story, and I am thrilled to tell it.
Even though Higdon was born in Brooklyn, New York, her father, Charles Higdon, was raised in Signal Mountain, Tennessee. Higdon’s father was an artist, he worked at an advertising agency while she lived in New York. Wanting to head back south, her parents, when she was around six-years-old, decided to move to Atlanta, Georgia where there were many ad agencies.
After living 10 years in Atlanta, the parents then moved back to east Tennessee because they had family there. At a farm in Seymour, Blount Country, Tennessee is where Higdon found an old flute in an attic. From there, she used a beginning band method book and taught herself how to play. Building off of what she had taught herself, Higdon joined the high school marching band because “that was what was available to me.” She said being in the band was “incredible” and an “inspiring experience.”
The future musician liked march band so much, she decided to major in music. Growing up, Higdon did not listen to classical music or have any formal training in music. During her childhood, she and her father listened to 60s folk, rock, bluegrass and country music.
“The music I listened to was more pop-orientated and country and wasn’t really classical. I don’t know what made me think to go toward classical music to make a living, but crazily, I did,” she said.
The Grammy winner was influenced by the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and The Rolling Stones, but not classical music legends like Beethoven and Bach. The first time she became familiar with classical music was through the Star Wars movies and the John Williams soundtracks used in the movies.
Higdon admits she was basically a novice when she went off to college at Bowling Green State University as a flute performance major, but thankfully to the world, she managed to stick with it.
“I loved it and was very passionate about it. At some point, I got interested in writing music. My flute teacher had me write a little piece. There was something about that it was great. It resonated with me,” she said.
Musical composition writing took over for her at that point.
“It sounds like an odd trajectory. I was always behind in school and college trying to catch up, so it still kind of amazes me when I think about things like Grammys,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Wow, how did that happen?’”
Although I am familiar with many Grammy winners, I never had the opportunity to speak personally with a Pulitzer Prize winner. I wanted to know more about that wondrous event. Jennifer Higdon was awarded her Pulitzer Prize for her Violin Concerto. She said winning the award took her by surprise.
“It’s a pretty shocking thing when it happens. Your phone just starts ringing, with no advanced warning. On the day they announce it, within a few seconds, the press starts calling and I had no idea what was going on,” Higdon said. “I kept getting these messages that said ‘congratulations’ and I was like ‘what are they congratulating me for?’”
Higdon has composed multitudes of award-winning works but is most recognized by her concertos. She has written 14 concertos each featuring different instruments. The 57-year-old will be in Nashville, the first week of March for the live recording of her Low Brass Concerto (featuring the trombones and tubas) as part of their Appalachian Spring concerts.
“I love coming back to Nashville. I love working with the orchestra there. It feels a little bit like coming home,” the music savant said.
Currently, when she composes music whether it be chamber, choral, orchestral or operatic, one of the places she draws inspiration is from her time living in the Smokey Mountains.
Though Nashville has proven to be a pivotal part of the history of American music, there are many who will share its glory. But when it comes to American classical music, there are few, and Tennessee is delighted to claim Higdon as one of its own. You must read the artist’s website for all her accomplishments.
You can get tickets to hear her work performed at the Appalachian Spring Concert Series at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center on March 6 and 7 by clicking here.
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