Peter Child introduced the concert with “we love you John – and what better way to express it than for us all to hear a concert with your music”. After the concert Harbison made a few brief comments of his own, to the effect that he loves his teaching at MIT, and speeds up with eagerness whenever he is heading to work with his students. “This is MIT”, he said, “We invent things, try new things out, see what works.” In spite of his busy schedule of teaching, conducting, and composing, the concert revealed that what he writes works very well, and keeps getting better.
The concert opened with the first performance of “French Horn Suite” (2006) – a 17 minute quartet for French horns commissioned by Jean Rife, a fine horn player and long time colleague of John’s at MIT. The result is a great addition to the woefully small collection of fine chamber works for French horn. It is new in sound, harmonically rich, engaging, and humorous. The piece opens with “Double Entendre” – one pair of horns talking to each other with the other pair trying to repeat what was said, but never getting it quite right. This is followed by “Mal entendu”, “La Ronde” – a complexly harmonic set of variation on well known round tunes – and more. The sonorities of the horns playing together, the melodies, and the rhythmic variations are all wonderful. All four horns played well – the star player was John Boden.
The second piece “A clear Midnight” (2007) was conducted by Harbison. It is a lovely, powerful piece on two of Whitman’s best poems, “Darest Thou Now O Soul” and “The Last Invocation”. Both texts are serious reflections on death. The music enfolded the works – caressing them, letting them float, just as the words themselves suggested. Susan Consoli sang the soprano part with confidence and sincerity. Two tenors, two basses, and a small string orchestra completed the orchestration.
“Cucaraccia & Fugue” (2003) for four violas, one played by Harbison himself, was just that. A brief somewhat cacophonous cucaraccia, followed by a fascinating, brief, and lovely fugue.
The fourth piece “Crane Sightings” (2004) was inspired by sandhill cranes in southern Wisconsin, evoking their beauty and their woeful disappearance as humans encroach on their territory and livelihood. The sections are entitled “Encounter”, “Flight”, “The Sadness of Marshes” (from Aldo Leopold’s “The sadness discernable in marshes arises, perhaps, from their once having harbored cranes.”), and “Dance-Variations” on a the theme “Now Thank We All our God”. The piece was as beautiful and moving as its inspiration. Rose Mary Harbison played the solo violin part with pathos and joy.
The fifth and last piece was “Umbrian Landscape with Saint” (2005) – part landscape, part a reflection on Giotto’s panels of St. Francis in Assisi, and part a cantata using Francis’s beautiful “Hymn to All Created Things” as text. MIT was able to project a scene from Umbria, the panels of Giotto, and the text of the hymn behind the players. The MIT Chamber Chorus and a small orchestra was conducted (excellently) by William Cutter.
The concert was greatly appreciated by the audience, which was full of local musicians and composers. If Harbison’s recent work is any reflection of current music composition, we all are in for treats.