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BMOP Celebrates Harbison

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Harbison and friend (BMInt staff montage)

On Sunday afternoon, April 7, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and its conductor Gil Rose gave the last concert of its 2018-19 season, a celebration of the 80th birthday of John Harbison. (The actual birthday had been on December 20.) Rose has often celebrated composers at significant points in their lives, and it is only to be expected that he would honor an award-winning composer who has spent so much of his career in Boston, from his undergraduate years at Harvard to his many years on the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and as conductor of the Cantata Singers (for which he wrote his Pulitzer Prize score, The Flight into Egypt. He also maintained connections with the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, as well as a festival at his summer location in Token Creek, Wisconsin. But Boston has remained the main location of his activity, and at 80 he is one of the most honored composers here.

Ed. Note: We have another review of this concert HERE.

As is entirely normal in BMOP concerts, Gil Rose assembled a significant and stimulating program, consisting of four orchestral works that represent the four major kinds of work that Harbison has written with orchestra:  a symphony, a concerto, a song cycle, and an operatic excerpt. The result was a longish program, but a particularly excellent one in terms of continuing interest and variety as well as the quality of playing by the orchestra and the excellent contributions by the featured soloists, soprano Dawn Upshaw and violist Marcus Thompson.

The program began with a short piece, the 1985 Remembering Gatsby, originally planned as an overture to his opera The Great Gatsby, though it was originally performed by itself at a “foxtrot for orchestra,” when the composer was unable to get the rights to proceed with the opera. Happily, after he received the Pulitzer Prize, the Fitzgerald estate changed its mind an allowed him to compose the opera, which enjoyed a considerable success at the Met. The overture begins with a somewhat blaring fanfare that anticipates the tragic outcome, then moves on to a lively 1920s style foxtrot (one of several original songs evoking the “Roaring 20s” that appear in the opera in connection with Gatsby’s lavish parties. Following some development of this tune (with a wonderful performance on the soprano sax by Philipp Stäudlin), the darker bitonal harmonies overwhelm the foxtrot for a somber close. The Gatsby score was the only one of the four works on the program that has been recorded. The other three works were recorded in conjunction with the concert for a forthcoming release on the BMOP/sound label.

The Milosz Songs for soprano and orchestra (2006), written on a commission from the New York Philhamonic during the directorship of Lorin Maazel, shortly after the death of the Polish poet Czeslav Milosz, who had left his homeland after experiencing the “two great totalitarian systems of modern history” from the Germans and later the Russians. He settled in the United States, in Berkeley, California, and by1980 he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.  For his song cycle, Harbison chose eleven texts, all relatively short, hinting at a world of challenges, concerns, doubts. The vocal line is gorgeously expressive, capturing the shape and flow of the poetry. The singer is surrounded (and, perhaps, protected) by a concertino group at the front of the orchestra, consisting of three flutes—including alto and piccolo, celesta, harp, and vibraphone. The small group takes the “Prologue from Lauda”; for the rest, different combinations and strikingly varied sonorities and dynamics provide a wide expressive contrast, suggesting everything from delicate hints to Brahmsian richness and even a touchof Stan Kenton big band. Dawn Upshaw was the splendid singer, whose expressive range from poignant to assertive was just right for the piece. I was disappointed that the hall lights were kept down for this vocal piece, when (despite Upshaw’s always-clear diction) it would be helpful to see the texts of the poems. (For the vocal part of the closing work on the program, the lights happily did come up a little.)

The Concerto for Viola and Orchestra (1990) was a lively concertante work in four movements (laid out as two pairs; a slip on the program page listed just three). The composer himself learned to play the viola, which allowed him (as a player of classical string quartets in his youth) to be “in the middle of things.” The opening movement with flexible changes of tempo, but not too fast, moody, with contrapuntal flow. The second movement, Allegro brillante, was frenetic and lively, and quite short. The third movement Andante projected assertive energy in its dynamics, with crashing cymbals and parallel minor ninths in the orchestra. The finale unfolded a very fast, staccato, jazzy rhythm that gave the soloist splendid opportunities to flash in the virtuosic close.

The final work on the program was the Symphony No. 6, written in 2011 for the Boston Symphony and premiered there by James Levine. It begins untraditionally, with a poem by James Wright, “Entering the Temple in Nimes.” The vocal setting, evoking a temple to the goddess Diana in southern Gaul, on the coast of the Mediterranean, which is still present, though the poem describes the arms of the young women who originally visited the temple now replaced by vines and green branches, all suggested in musical lines that continue to unfold. One of the most striking elements of the score’s color is the presence of a cimbalon and later a scherzo of very high trumpet writing. The cimbalon, linked with a vibraphone, returns in the final movement, being drowned out by other instruments that end the symphony in a chorale-like tranquility.

Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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