Harbison Honored At 80 In Concerts Grand, Intimate

Composer John Harbison applauds members of the Boston Symphony Chamber Players after a performance Jan. 13 of his Wind Quintet (1979) in Jordan Hall. (Photos: Hilary Scott)
By Keith Powers

BOSTON – He’s an American composer with a deep, fulfilling relationship with Boston, especially the Boston Symphony Orchestra. A composer with a major anniversary. A composer who is certainly one of the defining American voices of this generation.

Not Leonard Bernstein. John Harbison.

Harbison’s 80th birthday year provides a joyful chance to revisit his extraordinary output, especially for symphony orchestra. His five symphonies are being played by the BSO over the next two seasons, and that cycle kicked off with a performance of the Second on Jan. 10 in Symphony Hall. A sixth will premiere at the end of the cycle, in 2020.

Harbison and conductor Andrew Davis take bows after the composer’s Symphony No. 2.

The anniversary is also a chance to revisit Harbison’s chamber music, which the Boston Symphony Chamber Players did on the Sunday of this party weekend at Jordan Hall. Other Boston area groups – Emmanuel Music, Boston Musica Viva, Collage New Music, and the Cantata Singers – are also exploring Harbison’s compositions this year, as are orchestras across the country. His residence in Cambridge and appointment to MIT provide a geographical link to Boston musicians and organizations, deepening the connections.

But these relationships only flower if the music proves substantive, and in Harbison’s case, it certainly has. The symphonic commissions may have been spread around: this Second Symphony by San Francisco in 1987; the Third by the Baltimore Symphony; and Seattle the Fourth. But through his longtime relationships with so many area ensembles, which have enthusiastically championed his work, Boston proudly claims the composer.

Gilbert Kalish and Elizabeth Rowe performed Harbison’s Duo for flute and piano of 1961.

Harbison’s demanding symphonies need and deserve repeated performances. His style can be no style. In his own words, “I always wanted to feel that the next piece isn’t based on the premise of the previous one. The danger, of course, is that you don’t seem to have a style if you do that. Which is something I’ve started to enjoy.”

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The composer may enjoy it, but it makes for challenging listening. The Second Symphony has facile transitions that can seem like restless, directionless energy; on second hearing, the logic of the transitions becomes more apparent. The movement titles of Symphony No. 2 follow Aristotle’s unity of time: four sections, beginning with “Dawn” and ending with “Darkness,” played without pause. The opening movement proceeds from one idea to another without exposition or development, like the progress of the day. The opening of the first movement – juxtaposing low strings with flighty high winds and percussion – returns at the end of the movement, and then again in an altered way at the end of the piece, providing some sense of recurrence.

Pianist Alessio Bax joined Andrew Davis and the BSO in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24.

The second movement, “Daylight,” a scherzo, is a frenzied string-driven affair that ends with a wild gambit in the winds and a chorus of clarinets. “Dark,” the finale, lasts the longest and feels the most unified. It rises to two Ivesian peaks before ebbing away. Interspersed, a shifty barcarolle rhythm dominates.

Several times Harbison divides the string sections or has only the interior sections of the orchestra (second violins and violas) play, creating a physical depth to the sonic world. Hectic downward scales bring all the musical energy to the floor before the Ivesian climaxes. The ending, recalling the opening, deepens the darkness and ends in quiet intensity, coloring the entire work.

Andrew Davis conducted this bracing program, which included Alessio Bax playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 and Ralph Vaughan Williams‘ Fifth Symphony. There were no throwaway pieces here. Bax proved a delightful partner in Mozart’s great C minor, following the orchestra’s lead (especially the winds) in the first and last movements and carving out the king melody of the piece, in the slow movement Larghetto, with extraordinary ease. Davis, working symmetrically with both hands almost continuously, beautifully molded Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony, which was written during the time of the composer’s opera The Pilgrim‘s Progress and borrows many of its melodies and phrases.

Blaise Déjardin and Edwin Barker performed a Harbison duo for cello and double bass.

The Boston Symphony Chamber Players’ program showed that Harbison has been writing challenging, substantial, and often riveting chamber works for decades. It featured a flute duo (principal Elizabeth Rowe, joined by pianist Gilbert Kalish) from 1961, a wind quintet from 1979, a piano quintet from 1981, and an unusual work for cello and double bass from 2006.

Capping off the program was a Bach cantata, No. 51, “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen,” featuring soprano Amanda Forsythe and the trumpet obbligato of Thomas Rolfs. Taken as a whole, the line-up seemed to give a nod to Harbison’s life-long devotion to Bach, his new book, What Do We Make of Bach?, and its companion symphonic work of the same title that was premiered by the Minnesota Orchestra this past October.

The earliest work on the chamber program – the flute duo – was written while Harbison was in his 20s. Its five movements sometimes overwhelm the listener. But all the movements are deeply developed, if all different from each other. It opens with a fanfare for flute – startling but effective. A second movement Lullaby softens the mood, but the toccata-like virtuosity of the Intermezzo, and a powerful fourth movement with extensive doublings, were brilliant touches.

A Bach cantata, with soprano Amanda Forsythe, nodded to Harbison’s devotion to Bach.

Jazz and blues influences are often heard, but subsumed into Harbison’s mix. The jazz streak remains mostly alive in the piano part; one can imagine free jazz players finding this piece in the ’60s and stealing most of the shape-changing ideas that Kalish outlined underneath Rowe’s virtuosic playing.

The piano quintet from 1981 was commissioned by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. It was inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe, who not only painted for decades near Santa Fe but was born not far from Token Creek, Wis., where Harbison and his wife, the violinist Rose Mary Harbison, have maintained a summer residence and small festival for decades. It’s a work of great beauty and intense, gripping writing. Two substantial outer movements flank three shorter ones, each with great personality: a Capriccio, an Intermezzo, and a madcap Burletta. The concluding Elegia is involved but spacious.

The wind quintet epitomizes another pattern of Harbison’s chamber music – breaking an ensemble down into smaller pairings, and exploring those possibilities. Also in five movements, this quintet pivots around a middle Romanze, a well-developed section that features a series of shifting duets.

There are many great composers in this generation who could claim to be the “American Voice.” It could be Harbison, or Bolcom, or Tower, Corigliano, Wuorinen, Glass, or Adams. But at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, at least, this should indeed be remembered as the John Harbison era. His connections to the Symphony Hall stage were established in the Seiji Ozawa years (the First Symphony in 1984), furthered with his Requiem in 2003, and enhanced in the James Levine years with the Double Concerto (2010) and multiple other works. Those connections get celebrated, and grow, with this timely cycle.

Keith Powers covers music and the arts for GateHouse Media and WBUR‘s ARTery. Follow @PowersKeith; email to keithmichaelpowers@gmail.com.