John Harbison

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John Harbison
composer

John Harbison is one of America's most distinguished artistic figures. Among his principal compositions are four string quartets, four symphonies, the cantata The Flight Into Egypt, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1987, and three operas including The Great Gatsby, commissioned by The Metropolitan Opera and premiered to great acclaim in December 1999.

Harbison's music is distinguished by its exceptional resourcefulness and expressive range. He has written for every conceivable type of concert performance, ranging from the grandest to the most intimate, pieces that embrace jazz along with the pre-classical forms. He is considered to be "original, varied, and absorbing - relatively easy for audiences to grasp and yet formal and complex enough to hold our interest through repeated hearings - his style boasts both lucidity and logic" (Fanfare 1993). Harbison is also a gifted commentator on the art and craft of composition and was recognized in his student years as an outstanding poet (he wrote his own libretto for Gatsby). Today, he continues to convey, through the spoken word, the multiple meanings of contemporary composition.

Two major new works will anchor the 2005-06 season, Milosz Songs, commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for long-time Harbison champion Dawn Upshaw, and a Double Bass Concerto commissioned by The International Society of Double Bassists for a consortium of major orchestras. Also forthcoming is Canonic American Songbook for the Albany Symphony, three motets for the Cantata Singers of Boston, and chamber works for cello and piano, horn quartet, and percussion ensemble.

In the 2004-05 season Harbison composed a new work for the Atlanta Chamber players and Da Capo Chamber Players (Songs America Loves to Sing), and an overture for the Boston Symphony, Darkbloom, celebrating James Levine's first season as music director. Recent premieres include Symphony No. 4 for the Seattle Symphony, a Piano Trio for the Amelia Trio, and the motet Abraham, commissioned for the Papal Concert of Reconciliation in Rome in 2004. Other recent works include his Requiem for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Piano Sonata No. 2 for Robert Levin, String Quartet No. 4 for the Orion String Quartet, The Violists' Notebook, Four Psalms (commissioned by the Israeli Consulate for the Chicago Symphony to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel), and Partita, a Minnesota Orchestra centennial commission. Major revivals of The Great Gatsby took place at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in October 2000 and at the Metropolitan Opera in May 2002.

Harbison has been composer-in-residence with the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Tanglewood, Marlboro, and Santa Fe Chamber Music Festivals, and the American Academy in Rome. His music has been performed by many of the world's leading ensembles, and more than 30 of his compositions have been recorded on the Nonesuch, Naxos, Northeastern, Harmonia Mundi, New World, Decca, Koch, Albany, Musica Omnia, Centaur, Archetype, and CRI labels. Recordings of his Cello Concerto, Four Psalms, and Emerson in 2004, and Ulysses and Partita have recently been recorded for future release.

As conductor, Harbison has led a number of leading orchestras and chamber groups. From 1990 to 1992 he was Creative Chair with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, conducting music from Monteverdi to the present. In 1991, at the Ojai Festival, he led the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Former music director of the Cantata Singers in Boston, Harbison has conducted many other ensembles, among them the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, and the Handel and Haydn Society. For many years he has been principal guest conductor of Emmanuel Music in Boston, leading performances of Bach cantatas, 17th-century motets, and new music.

Harbison was born in Orange, New Jersey on 20 December 1938 into a musical family. He was improvising on the piano by five years of age and started a jazz band at age 12. He did his undergraduate work at Harvard University and earned an MFA from Princeton University. Following completion of a junior fellowship at Harvard, Harbison joined the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where, in 1984, he was named Class of 1949 Professor of Music, in 1994, Killian Award Lecturer in recognition of "extraordinary professional accomplishments;" and in 1995 named Institute Professor. He has also taught at CalArts and Boston University, and in 1991 he was the Mary Biddle Duke Lecturer in Music at Duke University.

In 1998, Harbison was named winner of the Heinz Award for the Arts and Humanities, a prize established in honor of the late Senator John Heinz by his wife Teresa to recognize five leaders annually for significant and sustained contributions in the Arts and Humanities, the Environment, the Human Condition, Public Policy and Technology, and the Economy and Employment. Among other awards Harbison has received are the Distinguished Composer award from the American Composer's Orchestra (2002), the Harvard Arts Medal (2000), the American Music Center's Letter of Distinction (2000), the Kennedy Center Friedheim First Prize (for his Piano Concerto), and a MacArthur Fellowship in 1989. He also holds four honorary doctorates. Much of his violin music has been composed for his wife, Rose Mary, and with her he serves as artistic director of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival on the family farm in Wisconsin.

Furthering the work of younger composers is one of Harbison's prime interests, and he serves on the boards of directors of the Copland Fund (as president) and the Koussevitzky Foundation. His music is published exclusively by Associated Music Publishers.

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Performances

Club Concert #1
Club Oberon in Harvard Square | November 29, 2010
Club Concert #3
Club Oberon in Harvard Square | June 7, 2010
Winter's Tale
Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory | March 20, 2009
The Ditson Festival of Contemporary Music
Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston | September 21, 2008
John Harbison: Ulysses
Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory | October 3, 2003
Boston Uncommon
Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory | November 3, 1996

News and Press

[Concert Review] Club BMOP's Alternative Narratives
Gil Rose presented Boston Modern Opera Project’s first Club Concert of the season on Monday evening, November 29. These evenings, which began at the Club Café in Boston in 2003 and this year moved to the Oberon in Cambridge, are hosted by BMOP's Score Board (New England composers) whose members take turns "curating." On this occasion it was Curtis K. Hughes who introduced each work, with pianist Sarah Bob introducing Hughes's own composition.
The Boston Musical Intelligencer Full review
[CD Review] The Classical Voice of New England reviews John Harbison: Full Moon in March
This recording from Gil Rose and the Boston Modern Orchestra Project includes two of John Harbison's prominent vocal works, the Mirabai Songs and his opera, Full Moon in March. The former is based on a text by a 16th-century Indian mystical poet and street-dancer, while the latter is loosely adapted by the composer from a play by William Butler Yeats. The last piece on this recording is an elegiac tribute to Calvin Simmons, a young conductor of the Oakland Symphony who died in a boating accident.
Classical Voice of New England Full review
[Press Release] BMOP/sound Releases John Harbison: Full Moon in March
BMOP/sound, the nation's foremost label launched by an orchestra and devoted exclusively to new music recordings, today announced the album release of John Harbison: Full Moon in March. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Harbison is one of America's most prominent artistic figures. As part of BMOP's ongoing effort to perform, record, and disseminate Harbison's significant, early works, the album includes two vocal works: his chamber opera, Full Moon in March (1977), which is based on W.B.
Full release
[Concert Review] Harbison's ambitious Winter's Tale arrives with spring
John Harbison's music is so ubiquitous here that you might think there was nothing more to discover. Yet until Friday, Boston had never heard Winter's Tale, the Shakespeare-based opera he composed in the 1970s. The ever-intrepid Boston Modern Orchestra Project's concert performance took place, ironically, on the first day of spring.
The Boston Globe Full review
[Concert Review] Mad Love
The destructive power of jealousy makes a good subject for opera. One of Shakespeare's plays about this most irrational emotion, the tragedy Othello, has been turned into a very good opera by Rossini and a great one by Verdi and his best librettist, Arrigo Boito.
The Boston Phoenix Full review