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John Harbison

Publisher: AMP

Concerto for Viola (1988)
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Soloists and Orchestra
Year Composed
22 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
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Programme Note
John Harbison Concerto for Viola (1988)

Composer note:

The viola was my instrument of choice, the one I picked out as a very young concert goer. It had a commanding awkward size, a somewhat veiled slightly melancholic tone quality, and it seemed always in the middle of things, a good vantage point for a composer (which I already wanted to be). It was frustrating to put up with beginning on the violin and I was always told I could switch when my hands got bigger. When it was clear I would never have large hands I insisted on switching anyway and my first summer as a violist was spent in an informal chamber music group playing Haydn quartets. That summer in Princeton New Jersey I remember as my happiest, the company of my friend John Sessions in the quartet, the wonderful music we were exploring, and the rich possibilities of the instrument I had always wanted to play.

I never became an outstanding violist – I developed more virtuosity on the tuba, made much more money as a jazz pianist. But as a descent quartet and orchestra player I learned music as a violist, it fulfilled its promise as the right place to be, and the beautiful “viola notes” in Mozart and Haydn, the subtle variants and re-harmonization’s, taught me a great deal about composition.

When it came to writing a concerto for viola I wrote for the violist I never was, the true soloist, and for the instrumental timbres I felt to be most typical of the instrument, its tenor and alto voice, rather than its rather unnatural treble. I also accompanied the soloist with chamber music partners from among my favorite instruments, often in duet or trio with the viola. The orchestral passages follow out this concept – they continue these conversations, without the kind of bombast that could make the wonderful voice of the viola seem outmanned upon reentry.

The piece moves from inwardness to ebullience and from ambiguous and shifting harmonic language to a kind of tonality. Within this broad scenario there was room for the kind of paradoxes I enjoy: a first movement in which nothing seems capable of repetition followed by one with literal repeats, a third movement of great formal and metrical simplicity followed by a finale filled with intricate metrical modulations.

--John Harbison

  • Ensemble
    New Jersey Symphony Orchestra
    Jaime Laredo (Violin)
    Hugh Wolff
    New World Records:
  • Ensemble
    Latvian National Symphony
    Randolph Kelly (Viola)
    Alexander Vilumanis
    Albany Records:
  • 14 DEC 2019
    Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, NY
    Juilliard Orchestra
    Carlos Miguel Prieto, conductor

Harbison emphasized the viola's noble and elegiac character...the viola asserts itself with heroic force, passion, sweetness and wide abandon. Harbison savors the chance to take the viola out of the innards of the orchestra and let it take wing. In the second movement, the solo instrument dances a vehement waltz, while the finale is a virtuoso display of exhaustive charm. The piece is moody and romantic, spiky and exuberant.
Donald Rosenberg, Cleveland Plain Dealer,01/01/0001
The four movements [of John Harbison's] VIOLA CONCERTO prove to be strikingly individuated as to scale, texture, and even emotional temperature. It is also full of smarts as to how an orchestral landscape often looks and feels to a viola, which is caught there in the middle making harmonies and getting scant thanks for it. [The VIOLA CONCERTO is] a really first class act...[with] Harbison's assured, everything-in-its-place, finished workmanship.
Richard Buell, Boston Globe,01/01/0001
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