Jennifer Higdon Musical Compositions Showcased at Northwestern University’s Pick-Staiger Hall

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About a month ago, on Friday, October 19, 2018, my wife Nell and I attended a Symphonic Wind Ensemble concert presented by the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University in their Pick-Stagier Concert Hall in Evanston, Illinois. The featured composer at this concert was Jennifer Higdon, the 2018 Winner of the Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition*. Ms. Higdon is the most performed living classical composer in the United States today. In addition to her Nemmers Prize Award of $100,000, Ms. Higdon traveled this fall to Northwestern University to conduct a workshop in classical music at the Bienen School Of Music. Her work with the Symphonic Wind Ensemble was showcased over a two week period with evening concerts on two separate Fridays. After brief remarks about how pleased she was with the work she had been able to do with the music students at Northwestern, they showcased their efforts by performing 4 pieces of music, 2 composed by Jennifer Higdon, 1 composed by Steven Bryant, and 1 composed by Adam Schoenberg. 

Ms. Higdon’s first piece performed that evening was her Mysterium (2011). Mysterium is Ms. Higdon’s own wind transcription of her sacred choral work, O Magnum Mysterium. The composition incorporates an ancient medieval liturgical tradition and presents it in a modern, yet approachable compositional language. Upon completion the wind setting, Ms. Higdon wrote: Mysterium is a tribute to the wonderful mystery of how music moves us. Perhaps it is the unexplainable that creates such magic, for both the performer and the listener, but there is no denying the incredible power of a shared musical experience.

Her second piece performed that evening was her Percussion Concerto (2005-2008). Ms. Higdon writes: The 20th century saw the development of the percussion section grow as no other section in the orchestra. Both the music and the performers grew in visibility as well as in capability. And while the form of the concerto wasn’t the least bit new in the century, the appearance and growth of the persuasion concerto as a genre exploded during the later half of the century. My Percussion Concerto follows the normal relationship of a dialogue between soloist and orchestra. In this work, however, there is an additional relationship with the soloist interacting extensively with the percussion section. The ability of performers has grown to such an extent that it has become possible to have sections within the orchestra interact at the same level as the soloist. The featured soloist for this performance was She-e Wu, a world-renowned percussionist.

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My wife and I enjoyed the concert immensely. Ms. Higdon’s work is vibrant and exciting in a way unmatched by other classical composers. For more information on Jennifer Higdon and her classical composing career, go to the Higdon Family Association website ( and/or go to Jennifer Higdon’s website (

Jennifer Higdon’s most performed composition is entitled Blue Cathedral. My wife and I find this work to be among her most beautiful compositions. Blue Cathedral is about 10 minutes long and is written for an orchestra. If you wish to hear any of the compositions by Jennifer Higdon, this is the one we would encourage everyone interested to start with. Further background on why Jennifer Higdon wrote this work can be found at Wikipedia: blue cathedral (

review by Frank Mayfield

*Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize

In Fall 2003, the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music established the Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition, a biennial award honoring classical music composers of outstanding achievement in a body of work and a unique creativity. Nominations are solicited worldwide. The winner is determined by a three-member selection committee, comprising individuals of widely recognized stature in the music community. The prize includes a cash award of $100,000, a performance by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and a residency of two to three non-consecutive weeks at the Bienen School of Music, where the recipient interacts with faculty and students.

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