By Jonathan Blumhofer
A surprisingly moving collection, all powerfully played and sung by musicians who have clearly guessed the musical language of John Harbison.
John Harbison has become a fixture in local music that the idea of the man ending his songwriting career is hard to fathom. Yet here we are: In an introductory note to the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s (BMOP) stunning new recording of his orchestral music, Harbison admires the symmetry of the album’s program, which he notes presents his first and (in the words of the composer) probably the last symphonic scores.
The parts in question date from 1976 Diotima and the enigmatic Symphony no. 6 (from 2011). Both were commissioned and premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra; here they are given an invigorating new life by BMOP and bandleader Gil Rose.
Diotima, which Harbison wrote in his late thirties, possesses many of the same qualities his later music possesses: soaring lyrical ideas, vigorous counterpoint, a keen sense of dramatic musical structures, and an ear for freshly idiomatic instrumental combinations. A sort of reflection of the eponymous poem by Friedrich Hölderlin, the score opposes two types of music, one thoughtful and lyrical, the other turbulent and bristling.
BMOP’s performance, powerfully sure in terms of rhythm and color in these last parts, proves remarkably touching and concentrated in the slightly shimmering opening ones. It is surely a work that the BSO – which did not touch Diotima since 1977 – should one day soon be resurrected.
They could do the same with the Sixth Symphony, which has not been heard at Symphony Hall since its premiere in 2012. Commissioned by James Levine but completed after his departure from the musical direction of the BSO, the Symphony is an unstable piece, sometimes decidedly spicy.
Its form is particular: the first movement includes a setting of James Wright’s “Entry into the Temple of Nîmes” for soprano, while the other three movements are purely instrumental. The score also includes the scathing sound of a cimbalom.
BMOP’s is Symphony’s second recording. The former, featuring the David Zinman-led BSO, is generally broader in tempo and more elegiac in tone. Rose and her forces, on the other hand, take a more assertive approach to the piece.
All in all, it is a successful interpretation. The instrumental movements, especially the second and third, slam. If the finale lacks some of the nostalgia and melancholy of Zinman’s reading, it doesn’t lack textural clarity or a compelling sense of form.
Best, however, is Dawn Upshaw’s radiant account of Wright’s poem. Not quite 60 as of this recording (from 2019), her voice still has it: yes, the tone is a bit browned, but, for pitch, diction, evenness of projection and sheer style, Upshaw owns this music.
She’s also great in Harbison’s Songs of Milosz, a 2006 commission from the New York Philharmonic. Featuring eleven texts by the poet of Lithuanian origin Czeslaw Milosz, the songs traverse a range of experiences and emotions, from mysterious and brooding to violent and triumphant.
Upshaw sings them all with compelling accuracy of feeling and technical security. She navigates the bravura elements of Harbison’s writing—the sudden arpeggios at the end of “A Task,” the leaping figures of “What Once Was Great”—with certainty. But the atmosphere it evokes in each short movement, like the luminous “Encounter” or the sinister “You Who Wronged”, is equally impressive.
For their part, Rose and BMOP deliver incandescent accounts of Harbison’s discreet instrumental accompaniments. “When the Moon” dances seductively. The brass-led orchestral choruses in “What Once Was Great” blaze. The syncopations of “So Little” bite sharply as the Berg-like closing bars in “Epilogue from Winter” float and the tonal contrasts between the resonant percussion and the warm flute trio in the concluding “Rays of Dazzling Light” shine. simply.
This adds up to a surprisingly moving collection, all powerfully played and sung by musicians who clearly have an intuition of Harbison’s musical language.
Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and has been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble and the Juventas New Music Group. . Since earning his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online at the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music reviews for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette.