Classical Music Rock Star Jennifer Higdon Didn't Know What a Major Chord Was Until College

It's been three years since composer Jennifer Higdon won both a Grammy and a Pulitzer for her music, but she stills seems a little shocked by the onslaught of attention and fame those awards inevitably garnered her. In fact, she still seems surprised that she ended up composing classical music at all, except for the very grounding fact that, quite frankly, she's worked her ass off along the way.

Last night The Dallas Opera hosted Higdon as part of its Composing Conversations series. The free event was hosted by KERA's jack-of-all-arts critic/reporter/producer Jerome Weeks, who lead the open-ended discussion with Higdon. The smallish audience was also invited to ask Higdon anything they liked, and several stayed after to chat with her at the end of the night.

Higdon has a forthright, down-to-earth personality that gave the evening a casual and accessible feel. She started her career in classical music unconventionally and rather late in the game, teaching herself flute and joining the marching band in high school. Looking back, she laughs at the naivety of her decision to study music.

"I didn't know what a major chord was when I started college as a music major," she confessed.

As a child of a hippie freelance artist, studying classical music was perhaps the most subversive thing this self-proclaimed rebel could do. She said her dad still doesn't quite get why she chose to pursue classical music.

At every step of her career, Higdon said, she defied conventional logic by "barreling through." To catch up with her peers, she studied harder and worked longer hours. She said she's still going back constantly and learning the standard repertoire other classical musicians grew up around. A sincere passion to communicate through music drives her daily.

Higdon is still breaking rules. Unlike virtually every other contemporary composer, she does not have a manager or a publisher. Her music is quirky but extremely likeable, just like Higdon herself.

TDO's Composer Conversations series is one of their best ongoing programs. At no cost, anyone interested in picking the brain of a contemporary composer can show up for an in-depth discussion with one of modern opera's biggest names. In the past, discussions with Tod Machover and Joby Talbot have accompanied announcements about collaborations, but last night, no such announcement was made.

Higdon's first opera, based on the novel Cold Mountain, will be premiered in Santa Fe in August of 2015. The opera is also set for a production in Philadelphia and Higdon hinted that a couple of other companies are interested beyond that. Here's hoping TDO brought her to town this week for some private conversations about the future in addition to last night's public talk.

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