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An Atlanta-bred composer returns to her roots to unearth a vision for the future

"One of the best ways of identifying the South is by listening for it in casual conversation -- where the place has been, where it's going, whether things are getting better or worse than the excruciatingly well-remembered past."

-- Joel Garreau, The Nine Nations of North America

If it's true that everything we need to know in life we learn early in childhood, then Jennifer Higdon should be well-versed in all things Atlanta. Though she was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Higdon spent her first 10 years amid the lush green neighborhoods of Lenox and Mason Mill.

In those days, becoming a musician was far from Higdon's mind. The grade-schooler's attention was mostly directed at playing with her brother Andy in the creek that ran through her front yard, enjoying the city's ample green space, and bicycling on Sundays.

"My memories have to do with the amount of trees, the nature presence in Atlanta, but also being on the front edge of art," says the 39-year-old composer.

This week, Higdon returns to her old hometown for the premiere of "City Scape," her three-part work for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, a 30-minute musical portrait inspired by her early memories of the city. It's the first piece commissioned by the orchestra since Robert Spano became music director in 2000, and the ASO's first commissioned premiere since 1996.

That "City Scape" wound up being about Atlanta came as a pleasant surprise to the ASO brass.

"After we asked her to do this piece, we had no idea she was going to come back to us with a piece about Atlanta," says Spano.

Some of Higdon's earliest memories include landmarks along Peachtree Street near her home -- especially the old Buckhead Sears & Roebuck building and Lenox Square, back when it was an outdoor mall graced with modern sculptures of characters from the stories of Joel Chandler Harris. She also remembers Atlanta's skyline -- or more specifically, its abstraction. Her father, a visual artist, was hired to create a model of it.

"Dad did something for Southern Bell -- a replica of the skyline out of yards and yards of telephone wire," she says.

"[It made me] hyperaware of what the downtown skyline looked like."

Back then, "skyline" meant "downtown." But Midtown, home to the ASO's current and future performance halls, now has a notable presence of its own that barely existed during Higdon's time in Atlanta. These days, the Woodruff Arts Center campus is surrounded by high-end condos and office towers, a mix of postmodernism and restorations that mingles classy restaurants, bars and clubs with a stable Ansley Park neighborhood that has somehow survived the lurch from the early 20th century into the new millennium.

The ASO's business offices sit, ensconced in an inconspicuous building, across Peachtree from the arts center. On a recent day, ASO artistic administrator Frank Dans settles into his chair. He notes that, although Higdon spent her early childhood here, it was not a factor in offering her the commission.

"I'd like to say we knew this -- and we probably did," says Dans. "But I don't think we were thinking about her in that context."

The basic terms of the ASO commission were for Higdon to write a multi-movement symphonic piece of some 30 minutes in length. "We wanted a big piece," Spano says. "For our first commission after such a long pause, we wanted to go all out."

And there were other conditions. The ASO requested three movements that could be performed together or alone. They asked that one of the movements be a "concert opener," and that another be composed for use in youth-oriented concerts as a lesson in musical form. All of which offers practical benefits for both orchestra and composer. Too often, commissioned works are premiered and then set aside. But composing for multiple uses affords the piece extended exposure (and hence, more income for the composer through performance royalties), and stretches the value of the orchestra's commissioning dollar, providing vital ammunition when budgeting for new works.

Spano says he'll be taking the first movement, Skyline, on tour in Florida this spring. That's an additional half-dozen performances alone. Meanwhile, the third movement, Peachtree Street, will be performed another 18 to 20 times for teaching purposes.

"In effect," says Dans, "over the next two seasons, instead of getting only three performances of her piece, she will get upward of 30 plays of at least part of her piece."

The Woodruff Arts Center has seen its share of change over the last 30 years -- not least of which is the impending construction of the Atlanta Symphony Center, facing 14th Street. Long before a gleaming nest of skyscrapers occupied the area, 14th Street was known as "The Strip." In the late '60s, it was Atlanta's Haight-Ashbury, a sketchy, offbeat district largely populated by college students, hippies and bikers -- a far cry from the tidy corporate towers and cultural institutions of today.

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