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John Harbison

Publisher: AMP

Concerto for Oboe (1991)
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Soloists and Orchestra
Year Composed
21 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
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Programme Note
John Harbison Concerto for Oboe (1991)

Composer note:

This Oboe Concerto was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, for its Principal Oboist, William Bennett. I was fortunate to be able to trade ideas about the piece with him from the beginning, to listen to his playing, and to have the benefit of his reactions to my ideas, both verbally and from his taped playing of the sketches. I found it fascinating to hear one of his own compositions, a set of lighthearted and quirky variations on Mendelssohn' s Wedding March, which gave me additional clues to his playing style and personality.

In my view, the orchestra has two leaders, the concertmaster and the principal oboist. There exist concertos which seem to be designed for a concertmaster, like the Stravinsky Concerto or the Haydn Concertante, where the soloist plays a great deal with small groups of his or her colleagues. In Baroque concertos, such as the Bach Double or the Brandenburgs, the soloist even plays along in some of the tutti passages, as if to underline the common origins of soloist and section player. This Oboe Concerto gradually evolves toward this collective ideal. At the end, soloist, concertino groups, and the orchestra as a whole aspire to a clear and calm unity.

Here is a brief account of the three movements, which are played without pause.

I. Aria. The orchestra begins with a melody, played by the brass in unison and answered in chorale harmonization by the woodwinds. The solo oboe begins with this melody, then plays a new, longer more elaborate one. The two bassoons, bass clarinet and solo string bass then lay down a gently syncopated "ground" which serves as foundation for the syncopated oboe tunes. These are taken up by solo muted trumpet and alto sax as the soloist spins more and more extravagant descants. This leads to a candenza accompanied by string oscillations, based on the first two oboe melodies, the oboe accompanying itself. A final "gamelan" compacting the first brass melody ends the movement.

II. Passacaglia. The Orchestra states a ten measure passacaglia frame, fierce and monumental in character. Then the oboe spins a melody over three transposed reiterations of this frame. The orchestra repeats its initial statement, with new counterpoints. Then we hear a free interlude loosely based on the passacaglia subject. This dissolves into a very sinister, quiet statement of the ten measure unit. Again the oboe spins an obligato over three transposed reiterations, this time in perpetual motion, with the passacaglia core embedded in the "solo figuration. A final summary statement of the passacaglia subject, with added trumpets, ends the movement.

III. Fantasia. This is initially an idealized version of the twenties big-band frantic up-tempo three minute seventy-eight RPM side. An introduction, which will recur strategically later on, leads to a series of "choruses", in which the soloist leads the reeds. Phrase lengths expand above while the pattern below stays fixed. The final ride-out leads to a set of three accompanied cadenzas in freely changing meters, each resulting in refrains (the refrains each a variation of each other). The last refrain is suddenly intimate and reflective, ushering in an elevated, serene coda based on the beginning Fantasia.

-- John Harbison

  • Ensemble
    San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
    William Bennett (Oboe)
    Herbert Blomstedt
...plenty of lyrical and virtuoso exercise for Bennett and appealing jazz-effects. The composer has an ear for offbeat instrumental combinations: he rings clever changes on muted brass, and creates whimsical effects with bassoons and an alto sax.
David Murray, Financial Times (London),01/01/0001
Harbison's Oboe Concerto...emerges from two powerful live-music traditions, Bach and's the almost impossibly up-tempo Fantasia where Bach meets Ellington, and we grab the last A train out of Leipzig.
Leighton Kerner, San Francisco Chronicle,01/01/0001
...a composition which afforded lavish opportunity for virtuoso self-portrayal by...William Bennett, with lengthy passages involving "circular breathing" and tricky, complicated jazz rhythms in connection with occasional instrumentation evocative of the big-band sound of Duke Ellington.
Paul Moor, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,01/01/0001 that was alternately lyrical and rich in chromatic detail....Mr. Harbison first embraces a 1940's style of jazz orchestration and then transforms it into his own symphonic style.
Allan Kozinn, The New York Times,01/01/0001
Harbison's concerto...should win friends for contemporary American music. It has melody, a bold orchestral presence, attractive interplay between the soloists and individual orchestral instruments, and delightful but not overstated references to our very own home-grown idiom, jazz.
Shirley Fleming, New York Post,01/01/0001
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