Jennifer Higdon has built a reputation as one of today’s preeminent composers. Saturday night, the West Virginia Symphony finally programmed one of her pieces, “blue cathedral,” a work from 2000 that garnered her international notice, many performances and a string of commissions that has continued to this day.
Along the way she has won a couple of Grammy Awards along with the Pulitzer Prize for her sensational Violin Concerto (2009).
Higdon’s “blue cathedral” starts with a standard late 20th-century trope, the sound of metal percussion instruments — vibraphone, glockenspiel, crotales and chimes —fashioned into a hushed, shimmering halo of sound. It hovers over the first of several striking passages in the piece, a quartet of solo violas and cellos playing the piece’s serene main idea.
It is in the quieter moments when Higdon explored chamber-music like groupings of solo instruments that the piece is best. Principal clarinetist Robert Turizziani and principal flutist Lindsey Goodman played several of these passages tellingly.
The passages for full orchestra sound less convincing, reflecting the composer’s relative inexperience at the time.
But, a passage for the brass near the end of the piece that featured jagged crossing rhythms and biting harmonies teemed with complexity and verve.
Conductor Lawrence Loh drew a finely shaped performance full of striking colors from the orchestra. The ending, where the metal percussion instruments return with their hushed halo of sound, now braced by crystal glasses (another 20th-century trope) and little shaken bells, was breathtaking.
The 29-year-old Canadian violinist Nikki Chooi made his debut with the orchestra with a convincing performance of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47.
Sibelius’ music requires subtlety and rhythmic precision. Rarely does the music shift suddenly from one idea to another. Instead, the musical ideas evolve, changing shape, texture and rhythm gradually over the course of a few, or many, measures.
Chooi played with the required subtlety and rhythmic precision while essaying lithe melodies and bracing passage work. His tone had a dark creamy core in the opening movement but he let it blossom radiantly in the middle movement and finale.
The orchestra played adroitly in support. The finale’s opening, where the strings split a sixteenth-note ostinato with the timpani was mesmerizing in its clarity and precision.
Loh ended the program with a taut performance of Brahms’ Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73.
I tend to like performances of Brahms that take a classical view of the music, more Beethoven-like than sounding of late 19th century. Loh’s interpretation was somewhere in between. The first movement was a revelation. Classically fast and nimble, it focused on line and continuity over gauzy, overwrought expression.
The slow movement was gorgeous but tightly focused.
The intermezzo is the piece’s crowning achievement with its series of interlocking segments that twirl and flicker with rhythmic elan. Loh caught the modernist undercurrents of the music, giving it a forward-looking edge.
The beginning of the finale was more wooden than lithesome, but Loh turned the tide by the second theme. The recapitulation was full of luster right up to the stunning D major chord in the trombones at the end.
The Clay Center audience was vigorous in its applause for Chooi, who was brought back for three curtain calls. The Brahms drew a similar reaction from the crowd.
The Higdon, with its long passages of hovering quiet, let one hear how many people seem to need to clear their throats during quiet music.
Get some breath mints. Or cough drops. Squeeze your hamstring. Don’t cough.