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John Harbison, Composer

If you drive along Highway 19 just east of U.S. 51, you might notice a lovely pond and a grove of trees without suspecting that just behind the trees lives one of America's best-known composers, John Harbison. This is Harbison's summer home, a rural Shangri-La where he does most of his composing and where he and his wife, violinist Rose Mary Harbison, sponsor the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival each summer (see sidebar).

A conversation with the relaxed and affable Harbisons on a delightfully fresh Saturday morning touched on a wide range of topics, from the nature of art and performance to fresh approaches in realizing classical scores, from the scarcity of audiences that might fully comprehend the composer's intention to the intricacies musicians face in performing new music, from the self-promoting scramble of today's students and young artists to a more serious and insightful tendency that seems to be emerging among the newest generation of musicians.

The Harbisons are penetratingly intelligent and insightful about art and the creative process, and are concerned that serious music is being undermined by our contemporary culture's focus on fame, surface appearances, and competitive values.

"Great art is a phenomenon of conflict, a collision of sensibilities," John Harbison says. "Performing grapples with reality!" Rose Mary quickly adds. This grappling has long occupied the Harbisons as a central creative element. For the composer, it is the challenge of bringing together into a unified whole a large array of intentions, derived from such disparate sources as the music of the past, contemporary poetry, the pyschological and emotional content of one's own life experiences, and always the search for deeper meanings. For the performer, it is the struggle to master the instrument, to reach into the musical materials and cut away everything that is not essential, like mere virtuosity and the desire for critical acclaim.

Born in Orange, N.J., in 1938, John Harbison enjoyed the considerable advantage of growing up in the musical and literary ambience of Princeton. As a teenager he was influenced by the composer Roger Sessions, whose son was Harbison's good friend. His musical skills included a flair for jazz piano, an element that permeates several of his compositions. Later he studied at Harvard with Walter Piston, in Berlin with Boris Blacher, and at Princeton with Earl Kim.

He has been composer-in-residence at the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Santa Fe Festival, and the festival of contemporary music at the Music School at Rivers in Weston, Massachusetts. He has also been associated with other festivals and performing centers, including the Marlboro Festival in Vermont.

G. Schimer's catalog of John Harbison's published works lists 98 compositions as of 1994. He's well past 100 by now and is presently working on The Great Gatsby, a full-length opera based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, to be performed at the Metropolitan in New York in 1999. His oeuvre includes an amazing variety of both large and small works in highly original idioms. He has written two completed operas; a ballet score; concertos for cello, double brass choir, flute, oboe, piano, viola and violin; a sinfonia and three symphonies; many choral and vocal works; instrumental solo pieces; three string quartets and other chamber and symphonic music.

Harbison received the Pulitzer Prize in music in 1987 for his cantata The Flight into Egypt. He has produced a considerable body of religious music, much of it sparked by his long association with the Emmanuel Church of Boston. He is well represented with recorded performances of his music: about 25 CDs are listed in the current Schwann catalog.

Harbison married the violinist Rose Mary Pederson, for whom many of his violin works were written. The Harbisons then undertook their separate but co-joined careers as composer and performers. They are still very much a team, each speaking in turn as the other's complement, whether agreeing, reinforcing, questioning or contrasting views.

Rose Mary Harbison studied violin in Madison with Albert Rahier, the Pro Arte Quartet's second violin at the time, and later with Rudolf Kolisch in Madison and in Boston. She has both championed new works and revitalized the classic repertory for the instrument. She is by nature an explorer, always in pursuit of greater clarity, willing to experiment and even to be controversial in pursuit of deeper understanding.

Both Harbisons derived major artistic stimulus from Rudolf Kolisch, for many years the legendary leader of the UW's Pro Arte Quartet, a formidable scholar, and an extraordinarily intense teacher. Both the 1995 and 1996 Token Creek Festivals celebrate Kolisch's valuable gifts, this year marking the centennial of his birth. In addition, Kolisch was a friend of Harbison's teacher Sessions.

It doesn't take long, talking with the Harbisons, to realize that a major thrust of their entire creative activity is the interplay between elements that make up the dialogue of the mind. History plays an especially important role in this ongoing exchange. Our conversation caroms back and forth between the Baroque period and our own times. One theme emerges clearly, despite the enjoyable or even light-hearted tone of the conversation: Their music is very serious business.

As for so many musicians, the towering figure of Johann Sebastian Bach has provided the Harbisons with deep insights not only into music itself, but into the way musicians fit with their times. "In contrast to Handel, who was very aware of the marketplace," John Harbison remarks, "Bach was a great innovator, constantly trying out new instruments like the slide trumpet, the fortepiano and the five-string cello. At the same time, rather than follow the new musical fashions developing around him in his later years, he continued to serve his own muse, diving ever more deeply into the underlying musical ideas in such works as the Art of Fugue."

Though Harbison is not the only modern composer to find inspiration in Bach, of course, he is one of the few who views Bach's music as a living laboratory, striving to extract new understanding from fresh approaches to Bach performance. This summer's Token Creek festival, for example, features a reordering of the separate pieces within the Musical Offering, based on ideas from a 1980 article by the scholar Ursula Kirkendale. The article suggests that the five sections closely parallel a first-century treatise on rhetoric by Quintillian. This treatise would have been well known to the learned audiences in Bach's circle, providing him with an audience capable of experiencing the emotional and psychological depth of his fully developed mature style.

The whole issue of audience preparation and expectation is central to a composer like Harbison, whose music is unabashedly "complicated," invested with highly developed interrelationships between text and music, tone and temperament, past and present, obvious and subtle, direct and indirect. Performers too face a fairly steep learning curve in realizing Harbison's scores: to do the work justice requires long familiarity. Rose Mary Harbison likens this to playing Bach's unaccompanied violin pieces.

"It takes a long time," she says, "to go beyond the technical challenges, great as those are, to strip away everything nonessential. With luck, by age 50 you're finally finding out how to play them."

John Harbison, like Bach, is resigned to the fact that the audience for such complicated works will likely be relatively small. "Having lost currency toward the end of his life, Bach made his peace with music by finding a small but highly appreciative audience," he says. "Scholars now agree that this was an enormously positive solution. Certainly we are the beneficiaries through having these incredible works."

"The public often doesn't realize," Rose Mary adds with great earnestness, "that the creative soul is like an island, the greater mass of it hidden, its foundations revealed only to those who plunge deeply beneath the surface and are not distracted by the personality or surface appearances of things."

Not that the Harbisons think great art is necessarily esoteric. "The miracle of Bach is in the details," says John. "It's very demanding, but it's also direct, which saves it from being obscure. Something of the same sort is seen in late Beethoven, whose very complicated thinking is revealed in elaborate variation forms."

But John and Rose Mary agree that performance values are influenced by audience expectations, which in turn are based more on entertainment values than on deeper understanding. Players strive for virtuoso effects without achieving a deeply musical performance. At the Marlboro Festival, John says, not very many young players are all that good, though the high ideals of founder Rudolph Serkin are still very much in evidence. Such festivals, and especially the large circuit of competitions, have grafted onto musical values a mad scramble for position in the profession, with all the attendant political infighting. The music is often decidedly secondary.

"They need to keep the personality in balance and to cultivate an appetite for what one is, what one does," Rose Mary says. "Otherwise there is not sufficient passion about the art itself."

In his role as a teacher of composition (he is on the faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Harbison enjoys a fine reputation for helping his undergraduate students to find their own voices and develop their own styles. But some students are also caught up in the pell mell rush to public notice and collect teachers for their resumes: Harbison recounts an incident of a student who had been with Ligeti and Penderecki and who told him of this zeal for big names straight out.

However, the pendulum may be swinging back to more serious attitudes. The Harbison note that musicians in their early 20s are more likely to be aware of real values, while those in the 30 to 50 range are more likely to be "in a permissive haze, not quite realizing that it matters."

The Harbisons are deadly serious about music's expressive possibilities -- an attitude that's evident in their ambitious festival. "We put on the festival," Harbison explains, "because its small scale enables us to do things we can't do elsewhere. These include making music with people we admire and enjoy, as well as meeting listeners on a far more intimate basis."

The 1996 Token Creek Chamber Music Festival will present major works by Schubert, Mozart and Bach, as well as Berg, Sessions and Harbison. The festival continues its two-year tribute to the memory of the great Rudolf Kolisch, including works of the first and second Viennese School, which he especially championed.

The festival performers include pianists Robert Levin, Judith Gordon, Ya Fei Chuang and John Harbison; soprano Kendra Colton; violinists Rose Mary Harbison and Timothy Summers; violists Sally Chisholm, Joan Ellersick and Laurence Neuman; cellists Rhonda Rider and David Russell; flutist James Grine; and bassoonist Thomas Stephenson.

In addition to concerts in the Festival Barn at the Token Creek home of John and Rose Mary Harbison, this year the festival will present a program in the spacious atrium of the American Family Insurance Corporation northeast of Madison. The festival is also exploring a new direction by including an afternoon young people's concert and conversation, led by the irrepressible pianist Robert Levin and featuring a Mozart piano concerto.

The other festival concerts feature music waltzes and lieder, the Cello Quintet and the C Minor String Quartet by Schubert; four-hand piano music and a quintet version of the K. 449 piano concerto by Mozart; songs by Alban Berg; the Musical Offering by Bach; and the piano quintet and Variations for Young Players by John Harbison, the last a world premiere performance.

Isthmus, August, 1996
Copyright 1996 Jess Anderson

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