CONCERT REVIEW BSO unveils Harbison’s newest symphony, his sixth

Harbison’s “Pastoral” symphony is captivating and refreshingly original

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MIT Institute Professor John H. Harbison had his Sixth Symphony premiered at the Boston Symphony Orchestra last week. The piece was dedicated to James Levine, the former conductor of the BSO.
Donna Coveney—MIT News Office

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Conducted by David Zinman

Featuring mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy (Harbison) and pianist Leif Ove Andsnes (Beethoven)

January 14, 2012

Two years ago, the Boston community eagerly welcomed James Levine’s vision to survey the symphonic music of the world-renowned local composer and MIT faculty John H. Harbison. Indeed, over the last season and a half, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, directed by Levine, performed in chronological order all of Harbison’s five symphonies to date. Last week, this symphonic cycle reached its zenith, as BSO premiered Harbison’s newest Symphony, his Sixth, specifically commissioned by (and dedicated to) Levine. While precarious health kept Levine away from the podium for the premiere, David Zinman, a long time friend and champion of Harbison’s music filled in. He enthusiastically conducted the concert series, which in addition to the new symphony, featured music by Weber, Beethoven and R. Strauss. Given the eclectic blend of music featured, this program was sure to be a crowd-pleaser; indeed, the Saturday performance that I attended was top-notch throughout and enthusiastically received.

The symphonic genre has evolved considerably since its late romantic era of Brahms and Mahler. As the musical idiom expanded and diversified, the 20th century saw a distinct shift towards programmatic music and descriptive, poetic titles, creating an attrition of works called “symphonies.” Nevertheless, John Harbison does not feel symphonies are outdated. A few days before the premiere, MIT generously hosted in Kresge a seminar where the Harbison, Zinman, and mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy (who is the soloist in the first movement of the symphony) explored the genesis of Harbison’s new symphony. The composer believes that the title “Symphony” is appropriate if the music “is symphonic in ambition and scale.” Moreover, such a piece implies certain expectations, which, however distant from the classical formal and thematic requirements, they still pose a significant challenge. Additionally, Harbison firmly believes in musical exploration, thus adding the extra challenge of making each symphony unlike any of his previous ones.

Harbison’s Sixth Symphony is indeed a highly original work; although still loosely rooted in the traditional symphonic forms, it expands brilliantly and whimsically in uncharted musical territories, while at the same time remaining an inward-bound nostalgic meditation and a sublime soul-searching journey. Elements that stand out include the use of unconventional instruments such as the flexatone and the cymbalom, and the unusual first movement, a song that features a mezzo-soprano soloist. The musical idiom is also remarkable; while it sounds unmistakably Harbison, the music has a fresh, airy quality featuring often long, winding melodic lines and more transparent harmonies.

Although not officially endorsed by the composer, Harbison’s Sixth might as well be Harbison’s Pastoral Symphony. The suggestion was made at the pre-concert seminar, mostly by numeral analogy with Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, known as The Pastoral. After having heard Harbison’s piece though, I feel the parallel goes significantly deeper. Not only is the first movement particularly lightly orchestrated, but by use of the sung text, it paints a particularly vivid image of an ancient, south of Gaul countryside; natural elements (roses, vines, sycamores) and human elements (young women of Gaul) coexist, if only briefly, in a folkloric, almost mythical harmony. This transient, ghostly pastoral vision persists and develops throughout the other movements, aided in no small part by the use of the cimbalom, an ancient dulcimer-like instrument with strong (eastern European) folkloric overtones. Finally, throughout the piece, the harmony, although not technically tonal, tends to gravitate towards F major — the key of Beethoven’s Sixth. Illustrative moments for this tonal clearings are the end of the first movement and the beginning of the coda in the last movement.

The symphony opens with a setting for mezzo-soprano and orchestra of James Wright’s poem “Entering the temple in Nimes.” The striking use of solo voice to start the symphony — a likely unique element in the symphonic world — establishes and foreshadows the originality of the piece. The poem is a meditation on the ephemeral quality of human existence, contrasting the nostalgic reminiscence of some mythical, golden days of the past (the temple of Diana in the days of the ancient Gauls) with the gloomy solitude of the present. Harbison entrusts the vocal part with long, melodic lines, akin to Wright’s precise, yet colorful poetry. The orchestra, shyly at first, joins in and discovers its own independent contrapuntal lines, which add significant depth and liveliness to the musical imagery. The light, yet ingenious, orchestration is enthralling, as Harbison judiciously uses the myriad orchestral timbres to paint a scintillating yet nostalgic musical universe. Yet, the music is not programmatic or descriptive. Rather, it develops a life of its own, aspiring perhaps to the Neoclassical ideals of pure music. Therefore, the other three movements of the symphony extrapolate, explore, and distill the musical ideas set forth in the opening song movement.

Mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy offered a solid, enduring performance, opening Harbison’s Sixth. Easily holding her own against the large orchestra, Murrihy captivated with her lyrical vibrato, poised singing style, and sparkling-clear diction. Her mastery of Harbison’s often challenging vocal lines was evident as her beautiful singing seemed to echo long into the subsequent movements of the symphony.

The purely orchestral movements of the symphony follow a traditional slow-fast alternating pattern, yet the last movement is in fact a slow movement. Unlike other Harbison symphonies, the movements are separate, and not strung together without breaks. This allows the composer to explore more poised, more deliberate endings, which are introduced every time by the unexpected and strangely foreign sound of the cimbalom. The music is indeed of symphonic proportions; every movement starts out with long, expansive lines and soon after involves the full orchestral might. Nevertheless, just as in Wright’s poem, the youthful elan of the beginnings, of the past, eventually fades. The sonorous swells diminish, the rhythmic drive loses intensity and long phrases become fragmented and tentative. Even the third movement, which starts out as a lively scherzo, unravels from cohesive tuttis to individual instrumental lines (in the woodwinds), of almost vocal recitative quality. The final movement brings, albeit fleetingly, a few moments of heroic triumph, with an active brass section and horn calls harkening back to the sound of Brahms’ First Symphony. Yet the complete final dissolution cannot be averted; the original vocal line from the first movement returns as the symphony meanders through strange metaphysical realms, out of existence.

Aptly led by David Zinman, BSO offered an exquisite performance of Harbison’s new symphony, highlighting both the dazzling peculiarities of the music and its grand symphonic character. Even though it was a premiere, the piece felt well-rehearsed, almost familiar, and extremely enjoyable to witness. Given its originality, deceptive simplicity, and captivating, exotic beauty, Harbison’s Sixth Symphony sounded as his best one yet.

While the Harbison premiere was the focal point of the evening, the concert included other delightful pieces, intentionally chosen perhaps to be significantly more lighthearted. Following Harbison’s symphony, the BSO played Richard Strauss’ tone poem “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks.” While this piece is a common staple of orchestral repertoire and an excellent example of Strauss’ vivid imagination and superb orchestration, it can’t quite hide the fact it was written by a 31-year-old Strauss, full of youthful exuberance and excesses. Following Harbison’s deeply introspective and mature work, Strauss’ tone poem ended up sounding frivolous and puerile. Moreover, it seemed that once in familiar territory, the orchestra switched to autopilot and delivered a lackluster performance, without significant energy or pathos. Nevertheless, Strauss’ rousing fanfare music and its poignant finale seemed to reawaken the by-then lethargic audience, who cheered Strauss’ piece even more than Harbison’s (or perhaps the end of the more than two-hours-long concert).

The concert opened with Weber’s overture to “Euryanthe,” an apt warm-up piece, featuring delightful and festive, yet unambitious music. BSO delivered an excellent performance, which highlighted the warmth of the brass section and the impeccable tuning of the string section in the rather tricky key of E-flat. The middle section, featuring a ghostly passage, suggested by the sparse instrumentation, was particularly vivid and enjoyable.

Also on the program was Beethoven Piano Concerto No.1 in C major, featuring Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. While an early Beethoven work, this concerto can dazzle at the hands of an able soloist. That was the case Saturday night, with Andsnes taking full ownership of the piece and more. His sparkling, effortless technique added spice to the repetitive scales and arpeggios of the first movement, while his soulful, lyrical playing brought intimacy to the romantic Largo. Featuring a fearless left hand technique and a compelling (yet not overbearing) stage presence, Andsnes delivered a fiery rondo, full of playful exuberance and zesty cadenzas. The orchestra kept up with Andsnes, most of the time, although at times they sounded a little too subdued. Nevertheless, this spectacular performance marked a welcome return to BSO of this early Beethoven jewel after a six-year absence.

1 Comment
Anonymous over 9 years ago

This review matches the concert with one exception. The orchestra seemed to be having fun with Till Eulenspiegel. No need to patronize a piece that, if not done too often, is open-hearted and fun. It worked something like a built-in encore.