Early in his career, John Harbison thought he might become a jazz musician.
Instead, the part-time Wisconsin resident followed the siren call of contemporary classical vocal and instrumental music. Along the way, he earned a music professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, multiple international commissions, a Grammy Award nomination, a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant.”
Harbison — who spends summers with wife Rose Mary, a classical violinist, on her family’s former dairy farm outside of Token Creek northeast of Madison — turns 79 Dec. 20.
But he show little sign of slowing down. In fact, this spring and summer the music world has shown a renewed interest in Harbison’s work as a composer and conductor.
New commissions, along with the revival of old works, have taken the composer by pleasant surprise, and this season those performances are keeping him busy.
The pace has been so hectic that planning has lagged on the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival — the weeklong annual classical concert series Harbison and his wife host at the “Festival Barn” on their farm each Labor Day weekend.
But the show will go on, as it has since 1989.
Harbison’s season began in April with a performance of Abu Ghraib, his dramatic two-movement composition for cello and piano performed by members of Camerata Pacifica, a Santa Barbara, California, chamber ensemble. That same month, Presences — the composer’s composition for cello and five additional strings — was performed at the Bathhouse Studios in New York City.
April ended with the New York premiere of Harbison’s “String Quartet No. 6” at Weill Hall in Carnegie Hall. That was followed in May by another New York performance, “Songs America Loves to Sing” — a chamber arrangement that re-contextualizes familiar hymns and folksongs — by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.
All four spring performances garnered stellar reviews from classical music critics. May’s highlight, however, was the recording of the Nashville Symphony and Nashville Symphony Chorus’s performance of Harbison’s Requiem for the Naxos classical label.
“I think the conductor found the piece and decided to do it, and the performers delivered an emotional and polished reading of it,” Harbison says.
May ended with another surprise for Harbison — three reprise performances of his opera The Great Gatsby at the Semperoper in Dresden, Germany, under the baton of conductor Wayne Marshall. The opera had just been performed there last December.
“I was surprised by the spontaneous appearance of the work, which I had not known about,” Harbison says. “I think the production was the result of research by a very inquisitive and resourceful dramaturge, a position that has great authority and importance in European opera houses.”
Based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, Harbison’s 1999 opera was commissioned by New York’s Metropolitan Opera in honor of conductor James Levine’s 25th anniversary with the company. However, opera officials were not initially keen on the subject matter, Harbison says, nor on the composer’s role as librettist. Levine was a great supporter of the work, but opera staff and audiences seemed lukewarm to it.
None of that seemed to matter to enthusiastic Dresden audiences, who showed as much appreciation for Harbison’s music as they did for Johan Engels’ oversized sets.
“The production looked excessive, but the opera was very much about excessiveness,” he added. “Europeans see a story like Gatsby in political terms much more than we do, which I think is what the director had in mind.”
June world premiere
June dates included a performance of Harbison’s “Piano Sonata No. 2,” performed by pianist Robert Levin at the Klavier-Festival Ruhr in Bottrop, Germany.
Next was another Naxos recording, this time of the composer’s Symphony No. 4, performed by the National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic under the baton of David Alan Miller at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park, Maryland.
Harbison led performances of several of his works during SongFest 2017 in June in Los Angeles. The festival’s master classes and concerts are sponsored by the Colburn School, located across the street from the Walt Disney Concert Hall. June 9 saw the performance of “Mottetti di Montale,” Harbison’s 50-minute song cycle for vocalists and piano based on the poetry of Eugenio Montale. The 1980 piece is rarely performed because of its length and Italian libretto, the composer says.
“It’s a difficult piece that we performed at Token Creek 15 years ago,” Harbison recalls. “But to hear the piece entire and work with it again was a great thrill.”
In June, Harbison also saw the world premiere of his latest commission, Psalm 116. The choral work was commissioned and performed by the San Francisco-based vocal ensemble Chanticleer.
“I love that group and I always hoped I’d get a chance to write for them,” Harbison says. “I needed to learn about each of the singers so I could exploit the strengths of their voices if I ever hoped to write a 12-part vocal composition.”
Harbison adapted the text from the King James Bible and set the song in English. The familiar psalm begins, “I love the Lord for He has heard my voice and my supplications.”
“There are several German versions around, but the English version gave me a fresh perspective on the text,” Harbison explains.
Token Creek Festival 2017
Summer slows a bit for Harbison, who will conduct Bach Cantatas Nos. 32, 78, 115 and 168 at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Massachusetts, six days before the start of the Token Creek Festival.
This year’s festival will include music by Schubert, Bach, Schumann, Kreisler and others. One of three programs contains a series of works based on or containing elements of the waltz, as well as what Harbison calls some “sturdy Bach programming.”
“I have played selections from Bach’s Art of the Fugue every year, and they also form the centerpiece of my daily practices,” says Harbison of the composer’s largely unfinished composition consisting of 14 fugues and four canons in D minor. “I think I am up to six or seven now.”
As he approaches his ninth decade, Harbison says he has a clear approach to musical composition.
“I was sort of hoping that my style wouldn’t become Spartan and spare as I went along, but it has,” he says “That’s a common denominator of composers in their 70s and 80s. We have developed a great interest in the virtues of economy and proportion.
“The approach can seem radical in the extreme,” he adds, “but it can be amazingly effective because you learn the value of each note.”
The Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, Necessary Music: Words and Music for Our Time, runs Aug. 26–Sept. 3 at the Token Creek Festival Barn, 4037 Hwy. 19, DeForest. For more information and tickets, call 608-241-2525 or visit tokencreekfestival.org.