11/19/2010 - Philadelphia composer Jennifer Higdon turned on her cell phone after a routine doctor’s appointment in April to a barrage of incoming voice mails. The messages were popping up so fast that she immediately thought something had gone wrong.
“I thought, Oh, no! Something’s burned down in Center City,’” she says.
But it was far from a calamity. The first message, from a music magazine reporter, broke the news: Higdon had just been awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto, a piece she wrote for soloist Hilary Hahn.
A 1999 Pew Arts fellow, Higdon is no stranger to accolades: she received a 2010 Grammy for best contemporary classical composition. Still, winning the Pulitzer left her stunned.
When she went back in the doctor’s office to ask for a piece of paper to write down the phone number of an Associated Press reporter who had called, the staff asked her what was wrong.
“I think I looked really, really white,” recalls Higdon. “It didn’t really hit me for a couple of weeks.”
Before the Pulitzer was announced, Higdon, who holds the Milton L. Rock Chair in Compositional Studies at the Curtis Institute, was already a prolific composer with a full schedule of concerts.
The decade that has followed from Higdon’s 1999 Pew fellowship in the Arts has been productive for the artist—something that she directly attributes to the fellowship itself.
“The truth is my career kind of launched around the Pew [grant],because it gave me enough time to write some large works that got a lot of press when they were premiered,” Higdon says. “You can … trace a line from those projects to the Pulitzer.”
The Pew Fellowships in the Arts, which annually distributes awards to up to 12 artists in the five-county Philadelphia area, was established by The Pew Charitable Trusts in 1991. Since that time, fellowships totaling more than $12 million have been presented to 249 artists. The $60,000 in financial support can be dispensed over one or two years.
This year’s awards were given to artists working across a wide range of artistic disciplines, including tap dance, theatre, architecture, fiction writing, jazz and ceramics. (For a list of fellows, visit www.pcah.us/ fellowships.) The 2010 fellows are the first to receive grants under the program’s new guidelines, which allow consideration of applications from originating artists in any artistic discipline or across multiple disciplines in any given year. Also new this year is an effort to further the impact of the grants by including a set of customized professional development resources for the fellows. Fellows are nominated by 30 outside experts who have a deep knowledge of artists working in the region.
For Higdon, the extra time and focus that the fellowship afforded her resulted in two works: the Concerto for Orchestra and blue cathedral, the latter of which has become the most performed work by a living American composer in the United States. Both of the works spawned numerous requests for commissions.
Higdon leads a hectic schedule of commissions and performances that shows no signs of abating. Though she travels frequently for her work, she has no plans to leave Philadelphia, where she feels the combination of affordable living, a large and supportive arts community and the Pew Fellowships in the Arts has made it the ideal atmosphere for artists.
Higdon tells the story of recently attending an artists’ retreat in Italy, and sitting around with a group of artists from all over the world, discussing their respective hometowns. When it came to her, there was visible envy from the other participants.
Someone remarked, “Oh, you’re in Philadelphia. You are where those Pew fellowships are.”