During the head-spinning moments following the announcement of her Pulitzer Prize for music on Monday, Philadelphia composer Jennifer Higdon thought mostly about thanking people in her more distant past.
"It's not so much about me, but my high school band director, Larry Hicks," said Higdon, 47, who grew up in Seymour, Tenn. "I should also call my flute teacher, Mrs. Bentley."
The Pulitzer for her Violin Concerto - which was premiered by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra last year and is scheduled for a Philadelphia performance in February - came just 10 weeks after her Percussion Concerto won the Grammy Award for best classical contemporary composition.
Higdon could only state the obvious: "It's incredible how lucky I am," she said from her home in Center City while fielding the 40 phone calls that greeted her after she came out of her annual medical checkup.
Her Pulitzer came as no great surprise to Roberto Diaz, president of the Curtis Institute of Music, from which Higdon graduated and where she is now on the faculty.
"She's in demand," Diaz said. "Her music is played everywhere. . . . She's so easygoing. She's humble about her music and dedicated to what she does."
Not only is Higdon one of the most-performed living American composers, her music also has particularly high visibility. The Violin Concerto was cocommissioned by several orchestras, and was written for celebrated soloist Hilary Hahn, who premiered and recorded the piece for release this year for the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label.
Though some Higdon pieces have required tweaking and seasoning, the composer came back from the Indianapolis premiere unusually satisfied. She had found the composition process to be fraught, due to intimidation from the great violin concertos of the past: "I had to work hard to get around . . . awareness of history. That made the composing process way more intense."
What emerged was music that the Pulitzer announcement lauded as "a deeply engaging piece that combines flowing lyricism with dazzling virtuosity." The Inquirer's review (by this critic) compared Higdon's use of the soloist's high violin sounds to "colored lights flashing out of darkness with playful, peekaboo randomness."
Inspiration for the concerto came from the late Samuel Barber, who was also Curtis-trained, and who won Pulitzers in 1958 and 1963. The Curtis Symphony Orchestra, one of the co-commissioners, will play the 2011 local and New York premieres.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Higdon grew up in rural Tennessee but began serious musical studies at Bowling Green State University. She composed prolifically for a variety of ensembles throughout her graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania and the Curtis Institute. Her breakthrough was the 2000 blue cathedral, an orchestral work written in memory of her brother.
Another success was her 2002 Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra, which premiered during a national convention of the League of American Orchestras. Virtually all top orchestra officials were on hand to hear it.
Higdon lives in Center City with her partner, Cheryl Lawson, who manages their publishing company, Lawdon Press. The bulk of Higdon's recent orchestral output has been eight concertos of all varieties, including one for bluegrass trio; now she's in the beginning stages of a major stage work for the San Francisco Opera.
Awards indeed matter, she said - "It took six weeks to calm down after the Grammy" - but her composing schedule keeps her worrying about topping herself.
"After the Grammys, I just went on to the next thing," she said, "which was concerts in Boise, Idaho."
Among other Pulitzer arts citations, the New York-based and Philadelphia-born Julia Wolfe, who grew up in Montgomery County, was a finalist for the music prize for her piece Steel Hammer.
Next to Normal, a Broadway musical by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey about a woman's mental illness and its effect on her family, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Paul Harding's Tinkers, a debut novel about an old New Englander looking back on his life, was the surprise fiction winner. Liaquat Ahamed's Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World won for history, while T.J. Stiles' The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt was the biography winner.
The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, by David E. Hoffman, won for general nonfiction. Versed, by Rae Armantrout, won for poetry.
A posthumous Special Citation was given to Hank Williams for his "craftsmanship as a songwriter who expressed universal feelings with poignant simplicity and played a pivotal role in transforming country music into a major musical and cultural force in American life."