ATLANTA - Philadelphia composer Jennifer Higdon has perhaps never cast her net so wide. Always a seeker of extra-symphonic sounds, in the past she's trawled the aisles of Home Depot for trinkets that would give her orchestration an ethereal jingle.
But for On a Wire, her new concerto premiered and recorded last week by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, she frequented sporting-goods stores for fishing line to rub across the strings of a piano, experimenting at length in her Spruce Street studio.
"I had nightmares about the slower passages. I didn't think they were going to work," she said, recalling one of the fits of apprehension that generally accompany her creative breakthroughs, as with her popular blue cathedral. Judging from the whooping Atlanta audience response at Sunday's performance of On a Wire, it worked just fine, and is yet another triumph in a series of Higdon works that have made her one of the most immediately embraced living American composers.
Though her Pulitzer Prize-winning Violin Concerto limited the soloist role to a single instrument (that's the nature of the genre), Higdon got out from under the long history of concertos by writing the new work for six soloists, specifically the contemporary- music group eighth blackbird. Members of that group think nothing of playing multiple instruments in a given piece, often switching between piccolo and flute or violin and viola. In addition, Higdon's concerto asks its players to practice "extended techniques" - plucking and bowing the innards of a piano, much like techniques pioneered by one of Higdon's teachers, George Crumb.
"A day at the office" was how eighth blackbird flutist Tim Munro described the multitasking, having mastered it after extensive work. Such is the group's be-ready-for-anything philosophy - but Munro also admits it's among the busiest days at the office the group has ever experienced.
"I think you explored a whole new room in your musical mansion," Atlanta music director Robert Spano told Higdon on Sunday after a post-concert toast. "I'm hearing things that sound exactly like you, but I haven't heard them before." That's one reason he scheduled a recording session the day after Thursday's premiere. His plan is to rush-release the concerto as a classical-music single.
On a Wire begins with the six musicians gathered around the open-lidded piano, most of them "bowing" the interior strings with horsehair (it worked better than fishing line) to eerie, almost electronic-music effect. As the concerto evolves into a full-blown orchestral work, the musicians have their own virtuosic solo moments, none alike in temperament, some dense and excited, others like philosophical soliloquies.
Recurring brass statements frame those flourishes - not unlike the 18th-century concerti grossi that used orchestral signposts as structural glue. But while such signposts arrived with repetitive formality, all elements in Higdon's concerto are in constant metamorphosis.
So many kinds of musical incidents are contained within the 25-minute concerto that you'd think Higdon was inspired by the far-flung literary imagery of the Leonard Cohen song "Bird on a Wire." However, Higdon, 48, swears she has never heard (or heard of) the song.
"I had finished the piece and couldn't come up with the title," she said. "I was in Indianapolis at the time, and somebody said, 'How about "On a Wire," ' which she took as a reference to eighth blackbird. "I said, 'That's the title! That's what it's supposed to be!' Sometimes I learn more about my pieces by talking to other people."
Higdon admits that even passages written for conventional instruments had her visiting the Curtis Institute's weekly afternoon tea (she's on the faculty) to ask students if certain figures could be played at the tempo she wanted. Partly, she wanted to exploit the singular resourcefulness of eighth blackbird. "I knew this group could do some really wild stuff," she said. "But I couldn't have done this two years ago."
Like many recent Higdon commissions, this one was created by a consortium of orchestras and festivals, nine in all, including the Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Toronto symphonies.
Not Philadelphia's, however. "We came to them twice," Higdon said. (A spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Orchestra said, "This project didn't fit into our scheduling . . . at the time," but pointed out that the orchestra commissioned or cocommissioned four Higdon works between 2002 and 2008.)
The Atlanta premiere with a longtime collaborator like Spano turned out to be exactly what she needed in the wake of winning the Pulitzer in April. The exhausting exhilaration that came with the award had to be pushed aside when she began rehearsals with Chicago-based eighth blackbird. Also, with a recording session looming, her premiere preparation had to be particularly meticulous.
Not that she regrets the prize. "I was trying to understand what had happened. It didn't seem real," she said. "Other people win it. Many Pulitzer winners phoned to say that the award would change my life. And it did. Suddenly, offers poured in. I was turning down a commission every couple of days. People are willing to wait until 2016 and 2017. I'm not even sure if I'm going to feel like composing at that point."
Also hanging over her head is a major commission for the San Francisco Opera that has stalled amid negotiations for rights to various literary properties she wants to dramatize.
"It's been four years since you locked me in your studio and said it's time to write an opera," she told Spano. "But it takes a while to get these things off the ground. It's like the world's biggest blimp."
So when Higdon had to choose between attending the Pulitzer luncheon and a long-planned, paid-for Virgin Islands vacation, she had every intention of opting for the vacation. When her partner, Cheryl Lawson, insisted she attend the Pulitzer event instead, Higdon dared her to get the plane tickets changed without huge penalties.
"Oh, yeah? Just watch me," Lawson replied. And she succeeded. After all, Delta Airlines isn't typically petitioned by recent Pulitzer winners. The reply: "Nobody could make that up."