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Longy Salutes Harbison


John Harbison (Jonathan Sachs photo)
John Harbison (Jonathan Sachs photo)

Word got around to many of John Harbison’s colleagues and friends that Longy was hosting a tribute to John, who will be 77 years old later this year. Soprano Lynn Torgove, and pianist Donald Berman organized the evening of the composer’s songs and piano music which substantially filled Pickman Hall. It pleases me to report that Harbison’s music is as young and fresh as ever.

Ever since college, I’ve been admiring John Harbison’s songs. Fifty-six years ago his settings of Housman’s “On Wenlock Edge” and several of Yeats’s poems, including “Crazy Jane on God” impressed me deeply. Though I’ve written about his much better known Mirabai songs and Montale poems, it’s hard to keep up with his remarkable fecundity. Many of the bright works  presented Friday were new to me; the North and South set, on Elizabeth Bishop’s texts, dates from 1999; the most recently-composed were premiered last year.

North and South is especially interesting for its palpable structural elements, which expertly complement the supple rhyme patterns of Bishop’s affecting verse. The cycle is in two Books of three poems, each including a “Ballad for Billie” [Holiday], warm bluesey pieces organized around recurring chord patterns, and beginning with a cycle-of-fourths sequence that supports “A washing hangs upon the line / but it’s not mine.” This nostalgic progression returns in varied forms in four stanzas, ending with the same bumpy sonority that was heard at the beginning – and I’m pretty sure I heard the same thing at the beginning of the second “Billie,” in Book II. In “Breakfast Song,” no. 3 in Book I, there is a slow 3/4 with an ostinato bass sometimes overlapped and transposed, a sort of freely-varied passacaglia like the first movement of Bach’s Cantata 78. There’s a welcome key structure, too, the F major at the end of “Billie II” leading into the shorter “Song” that follows. The last song, “Dear, my Compass / still points north”, was full of motivic groups of repeated notes, becoming more strident. Lynn Torgove was unfazed by any of this intensive pianism; her voice is perfectly proportioned to the drama in the contrasting texts, and she maintained perfect clarity throughout.

A set of four, The Right to Pleasure, composed 2013 on texts by Jessica Fisher, showed a less diatonic harmony and harder edges. “My Russian Lullabye”, with a line of upward-climbing parallel fifths bracketed by crosshanded grace-notes, seemed to have been inspired by Musorgsky’s “Trepak,” with its quiet wintry menace. “The Right to Pleasure” was a complex poem reinforced by a walking bass and a flowing, even trickling, right-hand part in sixteenths that concluded with a fanfare of chords; the “pleasure” was an erotic pleasure (“whoever gives pleasure has some of it”), but it was evanescent, waiting and unfinished. The keyboard counterpoint like a Bach organ prelude that dominated the middle of this song reappeared in the long postlude to the third, “Brancusi’s Head,” which was shorter but more obscure. The final song, “Flayed,” was a special challenge, big, heavy, and cruel, fighting with the singer, and the last line, “Why I thought you’d want these boots / I don’t know” made me realize that these boots weren’t made for walking. But the set ended high and pianissimo, and I wanted to hear them all over again.

After the intermission Don Berman played three solos, Montale Sketches, and perhaps all three were assembled from fragments that Harbison didn’t use when sketching his Motetti di Montale of two decades earlier. The stately and even ponderous first piece, “On an Unwritten Letter,” had a refrain with a craggy, swaying c minor, with bell-like low chords at the end. “In Sleep” pointed to an agitated sleep, a fast 6/8 alternating with 3/4 (the composer’s note mentions the poet’s “savage jig”), and a thunderous bass in culmination, while “Serenata Indiana” was mostly a collage of small gestures – I didn’t understand the “Indiana,” but I remembered that Busoni, a different kind of Italian, had composed a Fantasia Indiana.

The composer came on stage to conduct The Seven Ages, on texts by Louise Glück, with Lynn Torgove accompanied by flute, clarinet, violin, cello, vibraphone and piano. (Elsewhere in these pages I’ve emphasized that, entirely apart from his composing, John Harbison is one of the best conductors around, a pleasure to see as well as to hear.) What an elegant spectrum of moods in these six poems! I especially liked the barcarolle-like swaying piano “at the end of summer” in “The Balcony” (Debussy wrote a fine oscillating song with this same title, on Baudelaire’s text), the three-note sighing in “Decade” with the repeated tolling bell at the end (I think it was d-flat), the wild measured whirling in “Summer Night,” and above all the clarity that in several of the songs became prominent in two- or three-part parallel texture of flute, clarinet, and violin or cello, supporting the voice with perfect transparency. The last song, “Fable,” just five lines of text, reduced the texture even further, with the voice supported at one point by a unison clarinet and vibraphone: “But the light will give us no peace.” All of this music was refreshing, warm, and almost too brief.

This reassuring tribute testified to John Harbison’s lifelong concern with poetic values in vocal music, which constitutes at least half of his large output. It would be great if this program could be heard again, and just as good an idea to capture all of these works together on a disc, especially considering the fine dedicated performances.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably,  harmony.

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