Harbison’s Symphony No. 6 premiered by the BSO under David Zinman, also Weber, Strauss, and Beethoven’s FIrst Piano Concerto with Andsnes

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John Harbison
John Harbison

Boston Symphony Orchestra, January 12, 2012
David Zinman conducting

Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
Paula Murrihy, mezzo-soprano

Weber ‑ Overture to Euryanthe
Beethoven ‑ 
Piano Concerto No. 1
Harbison ‑ 
Symphony No. 6 (world premiere; BSO commission)
Strauss ‑ 
Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks

David Zinman led this weekend’s Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts, where the big event was the world premiere of John Harbison’s Symphony No. 6, commissioned by the BSO and capping its survey of the Harbison symphonies last season and this. Zinman is a fine conductor, and all went well. He is not a great cultivator of sound or of refined playing, but he has a remarkable sense of musical structure; makes clear, sharp phrases; and sustains a strong rhythm, complex when need be. He opened with Weber’s Euryanthe Overture, which sounded fresh and interesting in Zinman’s hands. It is basically a traditional sonata-form piece, but with unusual moves in development of material, and so made a good prelude to an evening of such music. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C followed, with soloist Leif Ove Andsnes giving what might be called a “nice” performance—nice tone and phrasing, all a bit polite and restrained, not fully letting go with Beethoven’s prankishness and oddity. After the first two movements, Andsnes came to life more in the rambunctious finale, bringing some bite to his enunciation of the much repeated rondo motif. Pianist and conductor worked well together, Zinman and the orchestra always pointed and flexible. In this piece again, as with the Weber, we were given some classicism with a personal inflection.

After intermission came the Harbison. This composer’s earlier symphonies have sometimes taken us on a traditional symphonic journey from dark to light, or light to dark —in Harbison’s highly individual way. Symphony No. 4, heard here last fall, works as something of a counter-symphony, presenting fragments, not developing and spinning out material in the traditional symphonic way. Symphony No. 5, also heard last fall, features singers, as successive movements recast the Orpheus story. The new symphony, No. 6, has an odd structure, featuring a singer in the first movement only, a prologue that the body of the work—three more movements—seems to respond to and make something of. This prologue sets James Wright’s poem “Entering the Temple at Nîmes,” which is an invocation of a sacred realm—perhaps art, or the higher realms of the spirit—threatened by “stone-eyed legions of the rain.” The voice sounds impersonal, more stating a solemn theme than rendering a personal experience. Mezzo Paula Murrihy sang the part very effectively, and she is a striking stage presence. The orchestra here is inventive and contrapuntal, yet the overall mood classical in a restrained and Apollonian sense. Harbison wants us to focus on the meaning, the intellectual theme. The composer has said that much of the inspiration for the Symphony No. 6 came from his friendship with James Levine (who commissioned the piece for the BSO, as also the Symphony No. 5), specifically Harbison’s admiration for Levine’s heroic persistence in work in face of fateful health limitations. The dimension of deep feeling comes out more in the second movement, which has the quality of a traditional symphonic first movement, picking up material from the prologue and developing and growing it in a manner that reminds one of Sibelius and his ability to weave so much, musically and emotionally, out of a simple starting point. Harbison’s themes and harmonies sound “American,” though, in a way unlike Sibelius, and this movement toward the end makes use more and more of spiky percussion sounds that unsettle any romantic associations. A scherzo-like movement follows, with highly inventive episodes between returns to the initial material. In all this music we can feel the power of art and creativity, going on, if one likes, despite the chill announced at the beginning. The finale goes on for a time and brings things down to a simpler and plainer level—I somehow longed for a return of the singer. But maybe this is the point after all: a sense of something wonderful taken away.

Some listeners have objected to Zinman’s concluding of the concert with Richard Strauss’s “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks,” as if this were a desecration, too much breaking the mood of the Harbison. For me it worked all right. This brilliant short tone poem—here brilliantly played by the orchestra, with beautiful solos from James Sommerville, principal horn, and Malcolm Lowe, concertmaster—is itself a tribute to art, showing how much musical and emotional invention can come out of a pattern of going through the steps of basic material again and again. Strauss’s wildness and brashness and special qualities of color only underscored in retrospect the meditative, soulful character of the Harbison.

Two Notes by John Harbison

The Composer on his Symphony No. 6

Symphony No. 6 was commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine, Music Director. It is dedicated to James Levine in friendship and gratitude.

These two sentences are far from formalities.

The piece begins with a setting of a poem by James Wright, for high voice and chamber orchestra. In the succeeding movements the singer is no longer heard, the orchestra is significantly larger. Certain passages from the poem maintain a presence through what follows. “As long as this evening lasts,” “I hope to pay my reverence.” “This evening, in winter, I pray for the stone-eyed legions of the rain To put off their armor.” The concluding lines of the poem are rendered in terms which define much of the rest of the piece.

The first idea I wrote down was a detailed fragment which seemed very promising. This sketch was lost for over six weeks, during which I tried to reproduce it. These resulted in paraphrases and derivations—whatever I could remember of the lost material. When it was found I understood that these recollections could all find place in the piece, the original sketch would not.

Much later I was haunted by a missing sonority, a granulated, silvery sound, mysterious, even ominous, a punctuation for the end of large paragraphs. Arriving late for a class given by percussionist Nick Tolle for the Tanglewood Composition Fellows, I heard that sound. It turned out to be a Cimbalom, which plays a brief but important part of the narrative.

I am fortunate that David Zinman, who has conducted splendid performances of so many of my pieces, leads the first performances of this symphony.

—John Harbison, October 2011


John Harbison on his Symphonies: Introduction to a Cycle

The Boston Symphony Orchestra’s cycle of John Harbison’s symphonies, which began in fall 2010 with performances of his symphonies 1, 2, and 3 and continued this past fall with Nos. 4 and 5, concludes this week with the world premiere performances of his BSO-commissioned Symphony No. 6.

I have never been one of those who felt the Symphony was played out. So many wonderful symphonies appeared during my early years as a composer. I remember especially recordings of pieces by Tippett, Piston, Lutosławski, and Henze, as well as live performances here in Boston of great symphonies by Dutilleux, Sessions, and Hindemith.

I had first to respond to another task—to absorb the very different musical proposals of our two Hollywood émigré composers, Schoenberg and Stravinsky. I needed at least the experience of writing a large orchestral tone poem, Diōtima; concertos for piano and violin, an hour-long song cycle Mottetti di Montale, and two operas, Winter’s Tale and Full Moon in March, to line things up.

Eventually I felt convinced by the title “Symphony.” I couldn’t see why our big orchestral pieces needed to be called things like Consternations or Entropies I (the 1960s) or Rimmed by a Veiled Vision (the ’70s) if they were symphonic in ambition and scale.

The twentieth century brought a lot to this genre, beginning with the great joust between Mahler and Sibelius (with Nielsen providing yet another even more eccentric route). Mahler proposed The Symphony as published autobiography, Sibelius as the free association of a private diary. New formal ideas came from these extreme positions, new kinds of grandeur and intimacy.

The hardest thing to win back for the big genres of symphony and string quartet is some kind of naturalness, some escape from the self-consciousness of our artistic time. By setting down Symphony on our title page we accept requirements, expectations, but cannot let them in while we work. It is not a test, it is a freely offered proof, or deed. We will need tunes, harmonies that define form, development that is also play, many tones of voice, movements and sections of varied length and weight.

We will need much of what we usually need, plus the conviction of not having done it this way before. At least these are some of the things I remembered to say to myself as I embarked—aware that if I found just one beginning it could be the net or foil that gets more phrases, eventually a piece. And once there is one piece, another comes from the determination to do something different. And another, to work away from the first two. I am grateful to James Levine for offering a chance to weight them individually, to see how they add up, to see—at distances of thirty years to a few months —if they contain their year of origin and still pertain to our present. To see if they are symphonies.

—John Harbison, October 2010

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