Susan Wingrove prepares Jennifer Higdon's 'Olympics for pianist' for Anchorage Symphony concert

Mike Dunham
Susan Wingrove will be the soloist in a new concerto by Pulitzer Prize winning composer Jennifer Higdon during an Anchorage Symphony Orchestra concert and the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts on Jan. 19, 2013.
Bill Roth
Susan Wingrove will be the soloist in a new concerto by Pulitzer Prize winning composer Jennifer Higdon during an Anchorage Symphony Orchestra concert and the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts on Jan. 19, 2013. 1/8/2013
Bill Roth

Pianist Susan Wingrove had to search hard to find the right piece for her upcoming concert with the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra.

The longtime keyboard player with the symphony was previously the soloist in Lowell Liebermann's Piano Concerto in 2003, which shows she can probably play just about any piece of piano music that's playable.

"This time I wanted to play a concerto by a woman composer," she said. "But it wasn't easy. So many contemporary concertos are abstract, you don't feel the heart of it. I wanted a piece I was going to love."

She found it in a brand new piece, a concerto by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon. The work, which debuted in 2009, has yet to be commercially recorded, but critics at the premiere gave it high marks.

"A big, meaty, somewhat discursive concerto," wrote Anne Midgette in The Washington Post. It "offered a lot to listen to and a lot you wanted to hear."

Tim Smith, in The Baltimore Sun, called it "an exhilarating ride."

Higdon is among the most performed living American composers at the moment. Her orchestral work "blue cathedral" has received over 400 performances in the past 12 years. She's won a Grammy in addition to the Pulitzer; the latter was bestowed for her Violin Concerto, which has been recorded by Hilary Hahn.

She's described by some as a "neo-romantic," though her pieces vary widely in styles. But her adroitness at invoking "color" and "atmosphere" is often noted.

"She loves color," Wingrove said. "She says she approaches music as if she were a painter looking at a canvas." In addition to "blue cathedral," some of her movements in other pieces have colors in their titles, "Pale Yellow," "Fiery Red."

ASO music director Randall Craig Fleischer chased down an archive non-distributed recording of the premiere and Wingrove gave it a listen. "I was like: Oh yeah, this is the one," she said.

Having retired from the Anchorage School District in 2011, Win grove -- who writes program notes for both symphony and Sitka Music Festival concerts -- took a year to spend time in Sitka. She rented a log cabin, taught a few classes at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp and had a stroke of good luck when the festival stored its rehearsal Steinway grand piano at her place.

There she applied herself to learning a score. The piece seems to have deterred many pianists, probably due to its complexity. Compared to Higdon's best known pieces it appears to have had few, if any performances since its premiere. Where "blue cathedral" and her Concerto for Orchestra will each have at least six performances before June this year, Wingrove's is the only reading of the Piano Concerto on the list.

"It's a huge reach," Wingrove said. "Some places just looked like hieroglyphics on the page until I could figure out the patterns."

But the patterns were there. Wingrove soon discovered that the frantic writing used familiar forms, a sonata-allegro first movement, a finale that pays homage to the classical rondo. Thematic elements are shuffled and reappear with an emotional logic.

The first movement opens with a slow, poignant piano solo. The orchestra enters quietly as the piano begins to built up scale passages producing what Wingrove called, "Nice, rich, huge, gratifying colors."

There's a brief early taste of what will be the full cadenza later on. A chamber ensemble backs up the piano and the sound becomes, in Wingrove's words, "more transparent, simpler and simpler," resolving in a D major chord.

The orchestra opens the slow movement peacefully and the piano enters with tinkling notes -- more like ice than bells -- moving into big chords and hints of jazz. The piano closes the movement alone and in a mood of calm reflection.

The finale kicks off with a blaze of percussion punctuated by a simple line of notes thumped out on the piano by the right hand alone. "It's a tour de force for percussion," said Wingrove. (A percussion concerto by Higdon is another of her more popular numbers.) "Then it becomes a perpetual motion headache."

Zig-zagging lines, sometimes with 32 notes to the beat, are interrupted by three solid chords, after which Higdon "explores the bass," which Wingrove enjoys. "She has a love of high voices," Wingrove said. In fact Higdon is a flute player and, in this score, often seems to be transposing flute technique onto the extreme right hand reaches of the keyboard.

But in this movement, she "goes to the very bottom of the keyboard multiple times," Wingrove said.

There's a short cadenza; then the music accelerates to a whip-crack close -- the audience won't have trouble figuring out when it's over.

From Midgette's perspective, the premiere of the concerto was the best-received item on the program that night, which included music by Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky. That may have been due to the performance rather than the music itself. Higdon refers to the concerto as a kind of "Olympics for pianist."

Wingrove is a fan of the music. She called it, "Tonal, melodic and structured." But she's also impressed by the formidable athletic demands.

"It certainly stretched my technique," she said.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.