Jennifer Higdon Celebrates the Many Meanings of 'Exaltation'

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Jennifer Higdon: An Exaltation of Larks

Composer Jennifer Higdon opens her program notes for “An Exaltation of Larks” with a definition of "exaltation": “an excessively intensified sense of well-being, power, importance; an increase in degree or intensity.” It’s also the word used to describe a group of larks.

On its new recording of music by the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Philadelphia-based composer, New York City’s Lark Quartet manages a performance that brings together the varying definitions of the word into a seamless whole that's as much heart as it is head.

For the title track, the strings soar as a single entity, fracture into separate spirals of descent and come together again into shimmering, unified chords. It’s a migration distilled into 16 minutes: swoops and dives, tranquil and surreal dusk flying and plenty of joyous exaltations. 

In Scenes from the Poet’s Dreams, Higdon paints sonic pictures of what she imagines a poet’s dreamscapes might resemble (“Racing Through Stars," “Summer Shimmers Across The Glass Of Green Ponds”). It’s realistic landscape rendering more than it is reality filtered through the absurdist lens of the subconscious, but that doesn’t make it any less compelling.

Pianist Gary Graffman’s buoyant left hand defies the us-and-them duality of so much piano quintet accompaniment, bouncing nimbly around flutters of pizzicati, intercepting cello melodies and pairing off in games of catch with the individual strings. This is perhaps most aptly illustrated in movement III: “I Saw The Electric Insects Coming," a jazzy and evocative knife dance of whining glissandi punctuated with menacing piano stabs and nauseated cello warblings.

The record closes with Light Refracted, a rumination on light that sees Lark joined by pianist Blair McMillen and clarinetist Todd Palmer. Beginning as a slowly morphing meditation that faces the danger of getting caught in the stickiness of its own saccharine, the music catches fire during its second movement, an almost cartoonish matrix of joyous counterpoint.

At moments, the programmatic quality of "An Exaltation of Larks" gets in the way of the music. This is music driven by sweet-voiced songbirds and the whimsical dreams of poets, so it's no surprise that it occasionally suffers from an overbearing moment of romanticism. But there's nothing wrong with a little sweetness now and then, and when the music is in full flight, it achieves that nearly perfect balance of craft and musicality for which Higdon is so deservedly celebrated.

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