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John Harbison

Publisher: AMP

Symphony No. 5 (2007)
Commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine, Music Director
Text Writer
Czeslaw Milosz, Louise Gluck, Rainer Maria Rilke (trans. Mitchell)
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Soloists and Orchestra
Sub Category
Soloists and Large Orchestra
Year Composed
35 Minutes
Baritone, Mezzo Soprano
Programme Note
John Harbison Symphony No. 5 (2007)

17 April 2008
Kate Lindsey, mezzo-soprano; Nathan Gunn, baritone
Boston Symphony/James Levine, conductor
Boston, MA

Video Program Notes:
Boston Symphony Orchestra's Classical Companion

Composer note:
As an audience member I’ve noticed that listeners for a piece with words fall into three groups: (1) those who follow the text as the music is being performed; (2) those who read the text over, before or after the performance, with varying degrees of attention, and (3) those who pay no close attention to the text at any point, but listen only “symphonically” that is, to the pattern of sound.

Those in the last group, though the ones for whom I have the least understanding, are probably the ones best qualified to decided whether this piece is, indeed, a Symphony. Every piece with singers and instruments should be coherent as a lucid sequence of sounds. These sounds, without reference to their verbal origins, aspired to a significant musical shape, something symphonic.

This piece existed, in imagination, as an orchestral meditation on loss, before the welcome suggestion from James Levine that it might contain music for voice. Three poems make more explicit the musical “theme.”

Tellers of mythic stories are especially free to tell, on the frame of a known “plot,” their own stories. What I loved about Milosz’s narrative was how truly Milosz it is—the habitual glosses and asides, his tough sensuous survival instinct, his sudden bolts of lyricism.

Milosz’s ending winningly evades the sober consequences suggested in my orchestral introduction. I felt his ending required an answer, a strong rejoinder. Louise Glück’s “Relic” is the counterforce. Song.

Then perhaps a Summation is possible. Rilke’s poem can be read and translated many ways. That quality allows the composer to set the tone. Stephen Mitchell’s graceful rendering gives the singers clear phrases to sing. On certain days I “thought” the poem this way:

Be in front of every Farewell as if
it was already past, like the winter just passing now.
Because among winters comes one so finally Winter
that only by out-wintering it can your heart endure.
Be forever dead in Euridice—rise singing
praising, rise back into your pure enterprise.
Here amid that which disappears, be, in the realm of negation,
be a sounding glass that shattered as it sounded.

Be—and still know at the same time the source of non-being—
the endless basis of your inner “swing”
so that this one time you can completely seize it.

To all that is worn out, to the mute and muted
Creatures of nature’s totality, the unexpressible sum,
Add yourself, rejoicing, and call it complete.

— John Harbison
(Rilke translation by John Harbison)

...he chose three poems connected to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, by Czeslaw Milosz, Rainer Maria Rilke, and the Cambridge-based poet Louise Glück. The vocal writing is sensitive and compelling across all four movements, and Harbison's orchestra, spiked with an electric guitar (played by composer Michael Gandolfi), is lean and concise, full of imaginative sounds and percussion effects, but most of all, extremely responsive to the imagery suggested by the poetry at hand. When Milosz's Orpheus descends into a surreal underworld of endless corridors and elevators, the orchestra descends with him; when Eurydice begins her journey back, we hear a haunting passage full of dissociated, zombie-like string writing. The other movements show a similarly keen responsiveness to text, especially as rendered by last night's fine soloists, Nathan Gunn and Kate Lindsey.
Jeremy Eichler, Boston Globe,18/04/2008
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