Jennifer Higdon-An Exaltation of Lark CD Reviews

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Jennifer Higdon’s orchestral music hasn’t exactly impressed me in the past; her very widely played blue cathedral is gimmicky. The chamber music here makes a better impression, and I’m finally a fan.

An Exaltation of Larks, for string quartet, was surprisingly enough not written for the Lark Quartet: the names are a coincidence. It’s a very outdoorsy, optimistic, American-feeling work, with open harmonies, virtuosic writing for everybody, snatches of melody and moments of great beauty. There are also a few moments, especially around the eight- and nine-minute marks, when I feel that Higdon is stretching her material rather thin. Luckily the last five minutes pick up the pace excellently or I’d have been glancing at my watch.

Next up are Scenes from the Poet’s Dreams, for string quartet and a pianist limited to the left hand alone. This was written for the Lark Quartet and Gary Graffman, who has been playing left-hand repertoire since an injury in 1979. The fast movements here show that Higdon has a real talent for energy, vibrancy and concertante dialogue between piano and strings. The joyous, playful first movement has me thinking of the Prokofiev concertos. The slow movements are to my mind much more successful, more evocative, than the meditative passages in the string quartet. Some of the most “modern” dissonant music on the CD is here: there’s a movement depicting a swarm of insects that’s as frenetic and jarring as an actual swarm of insects.

We conclude with Light Refracted, definitely the worst title but probably the best Higdon I’ve ever heard. It opens with an extended slow movement, begun by the clarinet alone and soon involving all the instruments in a passage of utmost gentleness and calm. This is as evocative and lyrical as Copland. That long, gorgeous opening is contrasted with a perpetuum mobile finale which was actually commissioned separately by performers who wanted an energetic chaser for the original piece.

The Lark Quartet is a string quartet with an incredible track record of promoting new music. They commissioned and premiered the two superb string quartets by Aaron Jay Kernis, and have also commissioned music by William Bolcom, Paul Moravec and Peter Schickele. Their playing is exemplary, as is Gary Graffman’s one-handed contribution to the Scenes. For Light Refracted we have guest appearances from clarinetist Todd Palmer, called upon to carry a lot of the load, and able partner Blair McMillen, a pianist who specializes in Cage. The sound quality is excellent and the booklet notes are by Jennifer Higdon herself.

Brian Reinhart