John Harbison

b. 1938

American

Summary

Composer John Harbison’s concert music catalog of almost 300 works is anchored by three operas, seven symphonies, twelve concerti, a ballet, six string quartets, numerous song cycles and chamber works, and a large body of sacred music that includes cantatas, motets, and the orchestral-choral works Four Psalms, Requiem, and Abraham. He also has a substantial body of jazz compositions and arrangements. Harbison has received commissions from most of America’s premiere musical institutions, including the Metropolitan Opera, Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. As one of America’s most distinguished artistic figures, he is recipient of numerous awards and honors, among them a MacArthur Fellowship and a Pulitzer Prize.

Critical Acclaim
There is much to admire in Harbison's whirlwind instrumental skill and audacious orchestration, including his writing for brass and winds, and much imaginative writing for an array of percussion.
Chicago Tribune

Biography

One of the dominant compositional voices of his generation, John Harbison’s concert music catalog of almost 300 works is anchored by three operas, six symphonies, twelve concerti, an organ symphony, and a ballet, six string quartets, numerous song cycles and chamber works, and a large body of sacred music that includes cantatas, motets, and the orchestral-choral works Four Psalms, Requiem, and Abraham. He also has a substantial body of jazz compositions and arrangements.  Harbison has received commissions from most of America’s premiere musical institutions, including the Metropolitan Opera, Chicago Symphony, Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.  As one of America’s most distinguished artistic figures, he is recipient of numerous awards and honors, among them Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships, a Kennedy Center Friedheim First Prize, the Heinz Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and the Harvard Arts Medal. 

 

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 pre-classical forms. He is considered “original, varied, and absorbing—relatively easy for audiences to grasp, and yet formal and complex enough to hold our interests through repeated hearings.  His style boast both lucidity and logic.” (Fanfare)  

 

Recent works include the monodrama If (Boston Musica Viva, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center), the organ symphony What Do We Make of Bach? (For the Seattle and Minnesota orchestras), and the Sonata for Viola and Piano (commissioned as an 80th birthday gift by a secret admirer for a consortium of seven violists).  With many performances postponed by the pandemic, recent premiere reschedulings have included Chaconne (for Big Band), the song cycles In the Early Evening (Louise Glück) and After Long Silence (Yeats), “Passage” (for Shai Wosner’s Variations on a Theme of FDR for the People’s Symphony project), the motet Sleepers Wake (For Emmanuel Music at the Leipzig BachFest), Piano Sonata No. 3 (for James Primosch), the trumpet sextet Nuns Fret Not (for the Voisin Competition at Lynn Conservatory), Prelude, for Organ (radio broadcast premiere), an evolving suite for solo violin, and several short piano works.  Summer 2022 will see first performances of the song cycles Four Poems for Robin (Gary Snyder) and Winter Journey (Louise Glück), Mark the Date (flute and piano), and Incontro, the 2022 competition piece for the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis.

 

Harbison is currently at work on new chamber pieces—a work for Earplay, and a viola quintet—and he recently completed a new choral work, Hidden Paths (settings of Frost poems for children’s choir).  A second volume of his pop and jazz songs (After Hours II) will be published this year, along with a collection of a Capella arrangements of jazz standards and originals. His cadenzas for various Mozart and Beethoven concertos, for piano and violin, will also soon become available. Harbison’s opera The Great Gatsby is due for major revival in 2025, an important anniversary year for both Fitzgeralds’ book and the opera’s premiere. 

 

Widely recorded on leading labels, recent CD releases include two new all-Harbison albums on BMOP Sound:  Concertos for String Instruments (viola, bass, and violin/cello double), and Diotima, an album of works for orchestra alone and with voice that also includes Milosz Songs and Symphony No. 6 (Dawn Upshaw, soprano).  Other recent recordings include Symphony No. 4 (National Orchestral Institute Philharmonic / Naxos), Violin Sonata No. 1 (Cho-Liang Lin & John Kimura Parker / Naxos), Late Air (Kendra Colton & Kayo Iwama / Oberlin), Simple Daylight & Piano Sonata No. 2 (Lucy Fitz Gibbon & Ryan McCullough / Albany), String Quartet No. 6 (Lark Quartet / Bridge), Requiem (Nashville Symphony / Naxos), Vocalism (Mary Mackenzie / Albany), and his cadenzas to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in G major (David Deveau / Steinway).   What Do We Make of Bach: Portraits, Essays, Notes, Harbison’s first book, was published in late 2018 (ARS Nova), praised for revealing Bach’s work “as a living, breathing model for our musical and artistic selves.”  Harbison recently penned a collection of jazz essays and is at work on a new series of composer reminiscences (publication forthcoming).

 

Harbison has been composer-in-residence with the Pittsburgh Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, American Academy in Rome, and numerous festivals. He received degrees from Harvard and Princeton before joining the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where in 1995, after many teaching awards, he was accorded MIT’s highest faculty honor—Institute Professor—and in 2022 achieved Emeritus status.  For many summers since 1984 Harbison taught composition at Tanglewood, serving as head of its composition program from 2005 to 2015, often directing its Festival of Contemporary Music.  With Rose Mary Harbison, the inspiration for many of his violin works (Violin Concerto, Four Songs of Solitude, Crane Sightings, Violin Sonata No. 2), he has been co-Artistic Director of the annual Token Creek Chamber Music Festival since its founding in 1989. He continues as Principal Guest Conductor at Emmanuel Music (where for three years he served as Acting Artistic Director), and he is a past music director of Cantata Singers.  Harbison founded MIT’s Vocal Jazz Ensemble in 2010, serving as coach and arranger, and he is pianist with the faculty jazz group Strength in Numbers (SIN). He continues to add to his jazz catalog.

 

John Harbison has been President of the Copland Fund, was on the board of the Koussevitzky Foundation, and a trustee of the American Academy in Rome.  He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and is a Trustee of the Bogliasco Foundation.  His music is published by Associated Music Publishers.  A complete works list can be found at WiseMusicClassical.com.

 

April 2022 

News

Performances

5th November 2022

PERFORMERS
Newport Symphony Orchestra
CONDUCTOR
Adam Flatt
LOCATION
Newport Performing Arts Center, Newport , OR, United States of America

6th November 2022

PERFORMERS
Newport Symphony Orchestra
CONDUCTOR
Adam Flatt
LOCATION
Newport Performing Arts Center, Newport , OR, United States of America

21st January 2023

PERFORMERS
Eastern Connecticut Symphony Orchestra
CONDUCTOR
Toshiyuki Shimada
LOCATION
Garde Arts Center, New London , CT, United States of America

3rd February 2023

SOLOISTS
Jennifer Johnson Cano, voice
PERFORMERS
Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center
LOCATION
Alice Tully Hall, New York, NY, United States of America

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