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John Harbison

Publisher: AMP

Double Concerto (2009)
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Soloists and Orchestra
Year Composed
25 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
Violin, Cello
Programme Note
John Harbison Double Concerto (2009)
April 8 2010
Mira Wang, violin; Jan Vogler, cello
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Carlos Kalmar, conductor

Composer note:
Many years ago I wrote a double concerto (for oboe and clarinet) in which the soloists were pitted against each other, and against the orchestra, in a contentious, dramatic struggle. It was important to do something very different this time — to work with musical questions that don't come up in that more traditional, public, concerto mode. Although some tunes and harmonies appear in all three movements of this double concerto I thought of the "subject" of each movement this way:

I. Slight "misunderstandings," known to music theorists as cross-relationships (unnecessarily pejorative in implication — they are often beautiful) are taken to a systemic level, perhaps standing for more telling misunderstandings. At issue is the interval of the third (is it major or minor?), an expressively determinant organism since music began.

II. Looking toward a closer accord, the soloists begin to mirror each other, revealing how differently things can look in mirrors of a certain design.

III. The soloists aspire to simply play a theme together in octaves, something the orchestra achieves near the outset of this movement. Their eventual realization of this objective signals the conclusion.

Knowing in advance that this piece would be initially programmed with Mahler's Symphony No. 7, the longest and in many ways the most diverse and expansive of the Mahler symphonies, I found pleasure in trying to make something contrasting, for such a space.

A composer might be like a builder who on one occasion makes a twenty-room mansion for players to roam around in, and on another occasion makes a small modern house with irregular rooms, secret compartments and fake doors. Above all he might say let's build this house not one like you've already done, that you are too sure will work out.

The Double Concerto was commissioned by the Friends of Dresden Music Foundation for The Boston Symphony Orchestra, James Levine, Music Director, Mira Wang, violin and Jan Vogler, cello in honor of Roman Totenberg.

— John Harbison

The Harbison work, a polished and attractive addition to his catalog, was commissioned by the Friends of Dresden Music Foundation for violinist Mira Wang and cellist Jan Vogler, who are married. It is dedicated to Wang's mentor, Roman Totenberg, the 99-year-old violinist who has maintained a major musical and pedagogic presence in Boston for decades. Harbison has said he was conscious of writing for a husband-and-wife team of soloists and tried to avoid any rhetoric of aggressive musical confrontation or one-upmanship in favor of a kind of collaborative virtuosity and an interweaving of related musical narratives. Of course, Harbison is too seasoned a composer to lean on simplistic or reductive musical programs. He has his married soloists often "mishear" or misquote each other. In the third movement, he has them struggle to play a theme in octaves before ultimately succeeding. The piece offers opportunities for virtuoso display, in the rhapsodic outbursts of the opening movement and the catchy upbeat riffs of the finale, with enough interest to hold the ear. The orchestral support is spare but sensitive, and it all ends gracefully, with a colorful splash of percussion and a light parting shot from the soloists, dispensed "col legno," or with the stick of the bow. Wang and Vogler played with lovely tonal warmth and focused commitment, but also with an easygoing poise, as though this piece had already entered their repertoire. Totenberg was on hand for Symphony Hall's warm appreciation.
Jeremy Eichler, Boston Globe,09/04/2010
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