The Youth Orchestra of Central Jersey has had the good fortune to work with visiting musicians from some rather venerable professional ensembles. And none are more highly regarded than the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Thanks in large part to a friendship with violinist David Kim, Philly’s concertmaster since 1999, YOCJ has performed with, and learned from, a number of the orchestra’s principal personnel. Kim himself has appeared with the YOCJ Symphonic Orchestra three times, playing concertos by Glazunov, Tchaikovsky, and Mendelssohn.
This year YOCJ’s Winter Concerts will be especially noteworthy in that, not only will the guest artist be a true rarity in the field — a female orchestral percussionist — but the music she has selected was written by one of the most successful of all living composers, who also happens to be a woman.
Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto will be performed by Angela Zator Nelson, Philadelphia’s associate principal timpanist since 1999. Nelson was the first female timpanist ever hired by the organization. In fact, she is only the second woman ever to be appointed to such a position by a major American orchestra.
Higdon, a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, has consistently appeared on the League of American Orchestras’ ranking of top-10 most frequently performed living American composers. Her Percussion Concerto earned her the first of her two Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Composition.
The work will be featured on the evening portion of YOCJ’s Winter Concerts, which will be presented in two parts on Sunday, January 19, at the College of New Jersey’s Kendall Hall in Ewing. (The snow date is January 26.)
An afternoon concert, at 3 p.m., will feature the YOCJ Wind Symphony, directed by Brian Woodward, in works by Steven Reineke, David R. Gillingham, and Edvard Grieg; the YOCJ String Preparatory Orchestra, directed by Phillip Pugh, in works by Arcangelo Corelli, Grieg, and Bela Bartok; and the combined Pro Arte Orchestra and Wind Symphony, again directed by Woodward and Pugh, in works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonin Dvorak.
Nelson will join the YOCJ Symphonic Orchestra for the evening concert at 7 p.m. On the evening program will be John Williams’ “The Cowboys Overture” and Franz Liszt’s “Les Preludes,” with the orchestra conducted by John Enz. In addition the YOCJ Saxophone Choir, directed by Jordan Smith, will perform Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Festive Overture,” Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus,” Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” and a selection from “Symphony for Saxophones” by Steven Dankner.
All tickets will be honored at both concerts.
Higdon’s Percussion Concerto was written on a joint commission from the Philadelphia Orchestra, Indianapolis Symphony, and Dallas Symphony. The work served as a showpiece for soloist Colin Currie. In 2005 Nelson played in the percussion section for the concerto’s first performances, conducted by Christoph Eschenbach.
“Having performed it before, I have some sort of grasp of the piece,” Nelson says. “Jennifer is really great. She really thinks about each person that she’s writing for. It’s a nice touch. Not only did she think about writing for Colin Currie, but I really think that she envisioned our percussion section as well. It makes it personal.”
In her program notes for the work, Higdon writes, “When writing a concerto, I think of two things: the particular soloist for whom I am writing and the nature of the solo instrument. In the case of percussion, that means a large battery of instruments, from vibraphone and marimba … to non-pitched smaller instruments (brake drum, wood blocks, Peking Opera gong) and to the drums themselves.
“Not only does a percussionist have to perfect playing all of these instruments, but (s)he must make hundreds of decisions regarding the use of sticks and mallets, as there is an infinite variety of possibilities from which to choose. Not to mention the choreography of the movement of the player; where most performers do not have to concern themselves with movement across the stage during a performance, a percussion soloist must have every move memorized.”
“I remember loving the piece,” Nelson says. “I am glad I have the opportunity to play the solo role in this performance. What Jennifer did really well in this concerto is to highlight the percussion section as well as the soloist. It got very positive feedback from audiences. It’s just a very exciting piece.”
Often described as a “neo-romantic” composer, Higdon was born in Brooklyn in 1962. She spent her first 10 years growing up in Atlanta. Then her family moved to Tennessee. Higdon’s father, painter Charles Higdon, always went out of his way to ensure that his children were exposed to the arts. She is now on the faculty of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music.
Originally Higdon trained on the flute. It was at Bowling Green State University that her teacher, Judith Bentley, suggested that she try her hand at composition. Despite a late start, Higdon made such progress that she was accepted to Curtis as a student. There her instructors included David Loeb and Ned Rorem.
Another one of her contacts from Bowling Green was the conductor Robert Spano, who went on to become music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Spano has remained a loyal friend and champion.
Higdon was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her Violin Concerto in 2010. She is the recipient of two Grammys for Best Contemporary Composition: for her Percussion Concerto, in 2010, and her Viola Concerto, in 2018. She has also been recognized with awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, American Academy of Arts and Letters (twice), Pew Fellowship in the Arts, Meet-the-Composer, National Endowment for the Arts, and ASCAP.
She has served as composer-in-residence with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Green Bay Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, and Fort Worth Symphony. Her biggest hit, “blue cathedral,” has been performed more than 400 times.
In common with Higdon, Nelson, who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, received ample encouragement and guidance from her parents and teachers.
“I started as a pianist, when I was 6,” she says. “I moved over to percussion in middle school because the band director asked if I would be interested in learning the mallet instruments. From there I took lessons on both and just found percussion to be much more exciting. I also found playing with an ensemble more enjoyable than playing alone as a pianist.”
Once she found her love, Nelson aimed high. She attended Northwestern University’s School of Music. Among her teachers was Patricia Dash, the first female percussionist in a top-five orchestra (the Chicago Symphony), whom Nelson describes as “a real trailblazer.” She also studied with James Ross and marimba virtuoso Michael Burritt.
Then she went to Philadelphia to obtain her master’s degree in performance from Temple University. There she was taught by Alan Abel of the Philadelphia Orchestra. When Abel announced his retirement she was ready to seize the opportunity. “I was studying with him when the auditions occurred, and I won his spot,” she says.
The process began as a blind audition, with musicians playing from behind a curtain, to ensure that first impressions were formed on a wholly musical basis. “The preliminary round, which for my audition probably included about 80 applicants, that was blind,” she says. “The semi-finals were also blind. Then the final round is when the curtain comes down and the committee can see who’s auditioning.”
It was the orchestra’s music director at the time, Wolfgang Sawallisch, a respected conductor in the twilight of his career, who was perceived as somewhat of a traditionalist — a solid interpreter of the core, dead-white-male-dominated, Central European classics — who had the foresight to hire her.
“I have him, along with the committee, to thank for being forward-thinking in hiring a female,” Nelson says. She is now in her 21st season with the orchestra.
Higdon comments by email: “I have worked with Angie on several occasions. She is a composer’s dream performer because she cares so much about conveying my intentions for the music. I know that she’ll make the solo part very exciting. I can’t wait to see what she does with the cadenza.”
YOCJ was founded by Portia Sonnenfeld in 1978 as a preparatory orchestra for the Mercer County Symphony Orchestra (now the Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra). More than 200 elementary through high school students make up the orchestra and its performance groups, including two levels for strings, advanced symphonic orchestra, and small ensembles for brass, percussion, and woodwinds. Auditions for new students are held in January, June, and September. The next auditions will be held on Tuesday, January 28.
Nelson will return to conduct an interactive masterclass with YOCJ students at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North on Tuesday, April 7. The class will be free and open to the public.
She certainly has ample teaching experience. She taught at Temple University for more than 10 years, beginning in 1999, right after she secured her orchestra position. But she had to give it up after the birth of her twins in 2011. “I just couldn’t fit everything into a schedule anymore,” she says.
Working with the youth orchestra has allowed her to share her passion for new music while inspiring young performers to achieve their best.
“John Enz asked me to find something to play with the ensemble,” she says. “He asked for me to find something new, something exciting. Looking through the repertoire, Jennifer’s was the piece that just kept sticking out. Even at the Philadelphia Orchestra, when we play one of her pieces, it’s a true event. Her music is always very exciting, very accessible to the audience.”
At a recent rehearsal Nelson was back in the percussion section, playing side by side with the students. “I am eager to bring that experience of learning one of her pieces to a youth orchestra,” she says. “I thought by giving them this experience, and by working with them, that they would learn what new music sounds like and how exciting it can be.”
Nelson performs regularly with the Network for New Music and the Philadelphia Orchestra Percussion Ensemble. She participated in the premieres and recorded the first five sets of “American Songbooks” by Pulitzer Prize-winner George Crumb.
She and her husband, percussionist David Nelson, make their home in Media, Pennsylvania. They enjoy working as a duo, performing recitals and educational concerts for both children and adults.
“I’m lucky and blessed that I did the right practicing at the right time and I wound up with the right teachers in the right area for my audition,” Nelson says. But that luck never would have roosted without a perch to land on. Nelson’s good fortune came about through hard work and good timing, but it was all built on a foundation of support from those who cared.
Both of her parents, elementary school teachers — her mother an amateur musician who took piano lessons and sang in a church choir — recognized musical potential in their children. Nelson’s brother is now a professional trumpeter who teaches at the Denver School of the Arts. Her sister majored in flute performance. “Music was definitely encouraged in our house,” Nelson says. “Both my parents encouraged me. They were always very supportive.”
Never underestimate the influence of supportive parents and encouraging teachers. Thanks to both, Higdon and Nelson were able to scale their passions to the top of their respective fields.
Winter Concerts, Youth Orchestra of Central Jersey, Kendall Hall, College of New Jersey, 1900 Pennington Road, Ewing. Sunday, January 19. Wind and Preparatory String orchestras, 3 p.m. Saxophone Choir and Youth Orchestra with guest artist Angela Zator Nelson, 7 p.m. $20 to $25. www.yocj.org.