The Lark Quartet: HIGDON An Exaltation of Larks. BRIDGE

FANFARE MAGAZINE:The Lark Quartet: HIGDON An Exaltation of Larks. BRIDGE
Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962) won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in composition for her violin concerto. Though born in Brooklyn, she spent her first 10 years in Atlanta before moving to Tennessee. According to her bio on Wikipedia, she studied at Bowling Green State University, majoring in flute performance. “Of playing in the university orchestra, she has said, ‘Because I came to classical music very differently than most people, the newer stuff had more appeal for me than the older.’” She also earned an artist’s diploma from the Curtis Institute of Music, where she studied with David Loeb and taught virtuoso violinist Hilary Hahn. The liner notes for this disc also indicate that she was recently commissioned to compose an opera on Charles Frazier’s book Cold Mountain for the Santa Fe and Philadelphia opera companies. So now you’re up to speed on her, as I am.

I like to refer to music of this genre, which applies to many American composers in their 50s and younger, as “American ‘hip,’” meaning that it is primarily tonal or modal with alternating lyrical and fast, driving passages with tremendous motor rhythms. But perhaps because so much of the music on this disc is written for strings, it has—like the alto sax sonata on the Albany disc—a more lyrical quality, with a consistently “singing” tone and feel about it. It may seem a bit funny that An Exaltation of Larks is played by the Lark Quartet, especially since it was actually commissioned for the Tokyo String Quartet, but these four young women give a passionate, committed performance, and although the Tokyo Quartet has its own special sound quality, something that is almost impossible to replicate, I couldn’t imagine the energy or musical style being any better represented than it is here.

An Exaltation of Larks is, like a flock of the birds themselves, chattering, noisy and happy. Higdon does an especially good job within its 15-minute time frame of developing and adding material. It is truly happy music, and that is not a negative statement as to its musical worth; on the contrary, I found myself continually engaged in analyzing the music as I was listening. To a certain extent, Higdon has also managed to create, here, a continuous musical narrative, one might almost say a tone poem for string quartet. I can well imagine this work also being scored for a small (say, 24-piece) string orchestra and being equally effective. As a chamber work, despite its well-conceived structure, you could not really call it a “meaty” piece, but it would make a splendid opening work in a program that also contained Bartók or Prokofiev quartets.

With Scenes from the Poet’s Dreams, the Lark Quartet—for whom the piece was written and who premiered it, along with pianist Graffman—shows their versatility in playing very different styles. Each piece within this five-part cycle has its own mood and palette of colors, and they adjust to each one superbly. I never thought, when I was growing up and first heard his recordings, that I’d ever get the chance someday to review a disc by Gary Graffman, but he was always one of my favorite pianists and, despite a long and distinguished career, I never felt that he reached the heights that his talent deserved. Here he is given a left-hand-only part, which he fills with his customary sensitivity and lyricism. He has not lost one whit of the magic he displayed on those old Columbia recordings so long ago. Indeed, the lightness and sparkle of his playing belie his age at this time, which was 83! The most energetic and, you might say, least “poetic” movement in this cycle is the third, “I Saw the Electric Insects Coming.” It represents, in Higdon’s words, “the kind of nightmare that no one likes to have,” and here both Graffman and the quartet flit about with a feeling of rough, somewhat edgy energy, while the fourth, “In the Blue Fields They Sing,” practically floats motionless above our heads. In this movement, the music Graffman plays belies his use of the left-hand-only (a device used throughout the cycle) as there are several bass notes upon which the harmony and rhythms act as a pivot. The last movement, “The Fast Dancers Dance Faster,” is also quite energetic but not as edgy or disturbing as the third.

The last piece on this disc, Light Refracted, was originally commissioned by Music at Angel Fire, but is played here by three of the Lark Quartet members (omitting the second violin) along with clarinetist Todd Palmer and pianist Blair McMillen. Higdon points out in the notes that the short second movement, “Outward,” was requested by several performers who wanted a fast-moving ending to the piece, thus she complied, but in my view the first movement (marked “Inward”) is perfect the way it is. The clarinet functions here almost as an “extra” voice with its themes played above and/or apart from the string trio—at times, it plays completely alone—while the piano part generally plays gently rolling arpeggio triplets or “chime” chords, and there is a busy middle section that, for me, is more than enough to add contrast to the opening and closing sections. Although it is a peppy ending and the musicians play it well, I felt that “Outward” breaks the mood of the original piece.

This is most certainly a disc worth hearing and owning. Lynn René Bayley