John Harbison: “Milosz Songs"

John Harbison: “Milosz Songs"
Dawn Upshaw
© Dario Acosta, courtesy New York Philharmonic
“Writing for Dawn Upshaw has always encouraged me to try new things.” With that, John Harbison captures the essence of a fruitful and inspiring composer/singer collaboration as Upshaw joins Lorin Maazel and the New York Philharmonic on 23 February for the premiere of Milosz Songs. The 30-minute orchestral song-cycle is Harbison’s first New York Philharmonic commission and the fourth piece he has written for Upshaw.

The work centers on 11 poems of 20th-century Lithuanian Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz. The “new things” that Harbison refers to is his very specific stage setting of the work. “This piece surrounds the singer with a concertino group of six players. This concertino plays an important, varied role in every song. I thought of these players as satellites revolving around the orbiting path of the singer...Milosz’s poems are Epilogues for the 20th century. He was a witness to its most harrowing events.” The poet’s life traversed the war-torn terrain of World War II and led him to settle in Berkeley, CA. “Milosz draws us, unready, as he was into the great sweep of history. Always, he reacts not ‘in sorrow, but in wonder.’”

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