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Composed: 1999s
Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (crotales, marimba, tam-tam, vibraphone, glockenspiel, bell tree, sizzle cymbal, suspended cymbal, chimes, bass drum, tom-tom, 2 triangles), piano (= celesta), and strings

Jennifer Higdon, the Brooklyn-born composer and flautist, wrote her 2000 orchestra concerto blue cathedral as a commission to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Curtis Institute of Music—but it emerged as something far more personal. Her little brother, Andrew Blue Higdon, had just died from skin cancer, and that seismic event seeped into the piece. “It was about deciding if life was going to be about living or about death,” she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2005. “I was surprised it turned out so positively.” In an experience of catharsis, Higdon crafted a sonic journey through a sacred space and upward into the heavens. The piece has become her most frequently performed.

In her own program notes, the composer suggested that cathedrals serve “as a symbolic doorway into and out of this world” and that “blue represents all potential and the progression of journeys.” “In my mind's eye,” she went on, “the listener would enter from the back of the sanctuary, floating along the corridor amongst giant crystal pillars, moving in a contemplative stance. The stained glass windows' figures would start moving with song, singing a heavenly music. The listener would float down the aisle, slowly moving upward at first and then progressing at a quicker pace, rising towards an immense ceiling which would open to the sky ... I wanted to create the sensation of contemplation and quiet peace at the beginning, moving towards the feeling of celebration and ecstatic expansion of the soul.”

The work places a special emphasis on Higdon’s instrument, the flute—which she taught herself to play when she was 15—and her brother’s, the clarinet. Chimes and other ringing percussion set the space like church bells, and we enter it with a tender adagio for strings. Wispy chords roll by as the solo flute and clarinet (and later solo violin) crisscross with hopeful, exploring lines. The two winds engage in tender conversation, with the elder sister’s leading off. The mood, for a moment, intensifies and darkens. (“I was kind of ticked off,” Higdon explained. “Part of mourning is anger.”) But the ever-upward movement is prevailingly optimistic and inquisitive, as the journey gains momentum and passes through percussive cloud layers. The gentle adagio returns in the end, wrapped in mystery, as the clarinet wanders on, alone.