The WSCL Blog

News and information about WSCL's Classical Music Programming

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Musical Pulitzers

If you heard on the news this morning the announcement of the Pulitzer Prize-winners, you might be forgiven for not knowing there were also prizes awarded for music, as well as literature and jounalism. Each year a composer (but not specifically a classical one) is given the award for an original composition, and this year's winner was Philadelphia's own Jennifer Higdon, for the Violin Concerto she wrote recently for Hilary Hahn. There was a performance this past year with the Baltimore Symphony; if you missed that, hang on - a recording will be released sometime this fall on Hahn's label, Deutsche Grammophon.

If you are unfamiliar with Jennifer Higdon's sound world, a good place to start is "Blue Cathedral," a lovely work recorded a few years ago on the Telarc label. Her music is new, yet not specifically "modern." If anything, it has more tonal qualities along with a sense of adventure, i.e., let's explore music, have fun, and see what happens. Like the best music, it thrives on a sense of tension being resolved - think Wagner's "Tristan" or some of the minor-key concertos by Mozart - but sounding more contemporary, along the lines of Bartok or Britten.

The Bartok connection stands out in another fun piece, the Concerto for Orchestra, which she wrote for the Philadelphia Orchestra. A recording of that is also available on Telarc.

Well, as is often the case when trying to describe a piece of music, words fail. Best thing to do is treat yourself, and give one of her works a listen. You will be rewarded, I promise you.

The other musical award went quite posthumously to one of the outstanding figures in music of the 20th Century, a man who lived fast and died very young: Hank Williams. Although his life is the stuff of legend, his musical contribution is incalculable. Any country or pop singer, or songwriter or song stylist worth his salt owes a great deal to the sad, lonely, melancholy, spooky, and often funny songs of Luke the Drifter. Tony Bennett was quite right to record and release one of his songs ("Cold, Cold Heart," which became a hit for him in the 1960's) and everyone from Ray Charles to the Grateful Dead have performed his music with great success. When his own catalog was reissued for CD in the 1980's, they cleaned up some of the sickly-sweet string overlays that had been splotched on after his death, allowing the hearer to appreciate them in all their original glory.

A matchless contribution to the American Song canon; will classical singers pick up on this treasure trove, too? We can only hope. But for now, find any one of those songs and give it a listen.

(My personal pick: an old radio recording from 1951 I heard many years ago, of Hank joyfully singing "I Saw the Light.")


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