Network Sings John Harbison

Network for New Music celebrated the work of John Harbison this past weekend with two concerts and a variety of talks and workshops. It was an exhausting and exhilarating experience.

The pieces by Harbison ranged chronologically from 1980’s Mottetti di Montale to the premiere of a 2013 work, The Right to Pleasure, commissioned by Network. The focus throughout was on song: instrumental pieces based on folk or pop songs either real or synthetic, as well as vocal settings of texts by Louise Glück, Jessica Fisher, and Eugenio Montale.

Songs America Loves to Sing, featured in Friday’s concert, arranges 10 familiar American tunes for “pierrot” ensemble, with the melodies either treated in witty contrapuntal constructions or as accompanied solos featuring one or another member of the group. It’s simply a delightful piece, wearing its compositionally virtuosic polyphonic garb casually. You would think the phrase “double canon by inversion with a free bass” is a description of a work by Bach, but it also describes Harbison’s arrangement of “St. Louis Blues”. The mensuration canons on “We Shall Overcome” sound similarly organic, not imposed.

The remainder of Friday’s concert was taken up with new works by other composers, all based on pieces in the SALTS set. The commissioned pieces included my own Meditation on Amazing Grace; Anna Weesner’s starkly powerful take on We Shall Overcome; Terell Stafford’s Favor, memorable for his masterful performance and inspired by the renditions of “Amazing Grace” he heard in church growing up; Uri Caine’s typically polystylistic treatment of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”; and Bobby Zankel’s Will the Cycle Be Unbroken, built around the similarly named tune about a circle instead of a cycle. Winners of a Network-sponsored composition contest, Luke Carlson and Peter Christian, contributed attractive short works as well. It was a great privilege for me to play my own work and Anna’s with some superb instrumentalist colleagues: Terell Stafford and bassist Mary Javian in my piece, and trumpeter Eric Schweingruber, violinist Hirono Oka, and again Mary Javian in Anna’s.

Sunday was all Harbison, opening with the first six songs from his massive Montale cycle. Mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley found the operatic qualities in this music, and coupled with Susan Nowicki’s intensely characterized piano accompaniments, the result was a musical setting that made the emotional world of the poetry legible in a way that mere reading could not. Bentley returned in similarly dramatic voice, this time accompanied by a string quintet, for the new work, The Right to Pleasure, which weds four darkly acute poems of Jessica Fisher to economical, tautly made music. The piece disturbs one’s thoughts long after the music has ended. The mood of the Glück settings in Crossroads, sung by Sarah Joanne Davis with great beauty of sound, is less dark, but similarly haunting. Hearing the line “My body, now that we will not be traveling together much longer” in a setting by a seventy-five year old composer gives one pause. Not that Harbison was being manipulative – the piece may be concerned with mortality, but it remains clear-eyed in its compassion.

Two lighter instrumental works offered a nice contrast to the vocal pieces. The Fourteen Fabled Folksongs are not pre-existing melodies, but folk-like tunes devised by Harbison. Hirona Oka, violin, and Angela Nelson, marimba, caught the various playful moods of the set in their exceptionally well-etched playing. Thanks Victor, a medley of Victor Young songs arranged by Harbison for string quartet, was offered by young members of the Philadelphia Sinfonia – Stephanie Bonk, Benjamin She, Jamie Ye and Max Song – who played with stylish lilt.

Harbison continues to be one of my favorite composers, creating music with breadth of expressive means, profound musical intelligence, and touching emotional resonance. This is a spiritually nourishing body of work, and I am deeply grateful for its presence in my life.

Go here to stream an interview with Harbison heard on NPR’s Here & Now in which he talks about Songs America Loves to Sing.




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