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Harbison jazzes up is classical composing

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
John Harbison, a visiting composer at the Aspen Music Festival, will have the world premiere of his "Great Gatsby" Suite performed Sunday, June 22, by the Aspen Festival Orchestra and conductor David Zinman. (Stewart Oksenhorn/Aspen Times Weekly)
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ASPEN ” By the time he was 5, John Harbison was already intensely interested in classical music. He’d listen to his father, a dedicated amateur pianist, play Bach pieces in the family’s house in Princeton, N.J., and soon began playing and even composing his own works.

At 11, Harbison found another love, jazz. It was the early ’50s, a pre-rock ‘n’ roll era when jazz was not only the nation’s popular style, but, with the recent advent of bebop, was a thrilling sound. For several years, into the middle of his college career at Harvard, Harbison straddled the classical and jazz realms, wondering in which direction to focus his attention.

The issue was decided for him, in a way that he still sees as mysterious. While he was contemplating which of two scholarships to accept ” at Tanglewood or the Lennox School of Jazz ” the jazz group in which he played piano entered an intercollegiate competition. The band lost, but the bassist in Harbison’s combo earned best musician honors, and with it, a trip to Fort Lauderdale. When the bassist arrived in Florida, he discovered that the other two winners, with whom he was to jam, were a drummer ” and another bassist. Which would have made for an awkward, and unlikely, trio.



“It was a mistake ” I had won the contest,” said Harbison. “But by the time I found that out, I had already turned down Lennox. It was a curious event, and quite determinative at the time of where my career would go.”

Harbison can hardly be disappointed with where that mistake ” what he calls “a strange act of fate” ” has brought him in the field of classical composition. Among his honors is a Pulitzer Prize for the 1987 vocal work, “The Flight Into Egypt.” Harbison is a professor at MIT, and heads the composition department at Tanglewood.



Currently, Harbison is a visiting composer at the Aspen Music Festival and School, having spent the summers of 1998-2002 as a composer-in-residence in Aspen. The central purpose for his return here has some ties to his history with jazz; on Sunday, June 22, the Aspen Festival Orchestra, conducted by Aspen Music Festival music director David Zinman, will play the world premiere of Harbison’s “The Great Gatsby” Suite. The work is an extension of the composer’s full opera version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic Jazz Age novel; the opera, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera for James Levine’s 25th anniversary with the company, premiered in 1999.

In Harbison’s conception of “The Great Gatsby,” for which he also wrote the libretto, much of the music approximates what the characters, including the ill-fated couple of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Miller, heard on the radio or at the lavish dances at Gatsby’s Long Island mansion. Harbison refers to them as “pop songs” or “dance music” to distinguish it from the more traditional operatic music sung by the performers onstage. The music, though, has a jazz element, as Harbison attempted to evoke the atmosphere of the ’20s with the sounds of the time.

“‘The Great Gatsby,'” he said, sitting in the Harris Hall box office, “is a period-sensitive subject matter. So many of the references to history were so specific, it wouldn’t translate well to another era. A lot of the sounds are distinctly period-sensitive.”

Zinman had been after Harbison for several years to make a suite of the opera. Harbison resisted, but not because he didn’t want to revisit his jazzier roots. Far from it. In recent years, he has embraced his jazz side. Harbison plays piano in the Token Creek Jazz Ensemble, a group for whom he also composes and arranges. The combo, which also features his wife Rosie on fiddle, makes regular appearances at the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival in Wisconsin, which Harbison directs.

Harbison enjoys reminiscing about jazz’s historic moments. He notes that Ornette Coleman was at the Lennox School of Jazz in 1961, the year the saxophonist “turned jazz upside down,” as Harbison puts it, with the advent of the free jazz style. But Harbison is likewise interested in where jazz is headed. While in Aspen this week, he was keen to hear the student jazz bands at Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ JAS Academy.

Harbison’s lack of interest in turning his opera into a suite had to do with the difficulty of the project. His original “Great Gatsby” was a complex and large work, featuring “through music” that played in the transitions from scene to scene. Further, it would put the composer in the role of an arranger, selecting and moving parts of his music in a quest for continuity and coherence. “I do jazz arranging, but that’s on a different scale,” said Harbison.

Not long ago, Zinman was conducting another work of Harbison’s, the Canonical American Songs, with the composer backstage. Zinman made his plea once again, and this time he laid out his full plan, which struck Harbison as relatively simple. Zinman’s idea called for excluding the opera’s six main arias and the overture ” which Harbison had already excerpted ” and putting much of the emphasis on the jazz-pop songs, seven of which appear in the suite.

Once Harbison got into the process of creating the “Great Gatsby” Suite, it wasn’t quite as simple as he had envisioned. In the new piece, not one scene is left intact from the original; everything is repositioned and restructured. He went to pains to include the parts of the opera that had not been excerpted before; though the full “Great Gatsby” has not had continued life beyond a 2002 restaging at the Met, the excerpted arias, overture and pop songs have all become familiar repertoire.

“It didn’t turn out easy,” said Harbison, who is working on a setting of poems by Louise Glück, a fellow resident of Cambridge, Mass., during his time in Aspen. “Any time you change the continuity, you have to do a lot of fitting together. I selected pieces for continuity, so the audience will hear things early on and re-engage with them later. That makes it more of a compositional exercise than merely a hit parade. So I did three or four versions before I was reasonably happy with how it was working. And I may have to continue operating on it.”

The Aspen Music Festival’s 59th season opened earlier this week, with appearances by the Colorado-based Takacs Quartet and violinist Joshua Bell. But it is Sunday’s performance by the Aspen Festival Orchestra that kicks off the season’s theme, “Once upon a time …,” which spotlights how composers have been inspired by mythology, fairy tales and literature.

Harbison’s “Great Gatsby” Suite is part of a concert devoted to the theme. Also on the program are three additional works with ties to storytelling. Wagner’s Overture to “The Flying Dutchman” is inspired by the legend of the sea captain destined to sail the world forever. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major ” which features the Aspen premiere of pianist Richard Goode ” is widely believed to have been inspired by the Greek legend of Orpheus, who used music to tame the beasts of the underworld. And Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche is the story of the German folk hero said to cause mischief at festivals.

The American Academy of Conducting in Aspen, a unique program that affords aspiring conductors the opportunity to lead an orchestra dedicated exclusively to the program, opens its concert season Tuesday, June 24. The free concert will feature works by Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms.

The Music Festival’s collaborative projects with other local nonprofit arts organizations begins June 24, when it teams with Jazz Aspen Snowmass to present vocalist Patti Austin and the Count Basie Orchestra at the Benedict Music Tent. The concert will be a tribute to the music of Ella Fitzgerald.

On Wednesday, June 25, conductor Nicholas McGegan leads the Sinfonia in a program of works by Purcell, Elgar, Britten and, with pianist John O’Conor, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major. That night, the married couple of cellist David Finckel and pianist Wu Han perform a special event at Harris Hall, playing music by Janacek, Finckel and Grieg, and the world premiere of New Hampshire-born composer Pierre Jalbert Cello Sonata.

The Aspen Concert Orchestra, with conductor James Gaffigan and violinist Stephanie Jeong, performs works by Mendelssohn, Walton and Tchaikovsky in a concert Thursday, June 26. That night at Harris Hall, the long-running Emerson String Quartet, an ensemble-in-residence in Aspen, plays a program featuring pieces by Shostakovich, Bright Sheng and Brahms.

Marin Alsop, former director of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra and now head of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, returns to Colorado to conduct the Aspen Chamber Symphony on Friday, June 27. The program features “Friandises,” by Aspen Music Festival composer-in-residence Christopher Rouse; Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, with soloist Cho-Liang Lin; and Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 in F major.

The Emerson Quartet concludes its residency with a Saturday, June 28 performance featuring works by Brahms, Janacek and Nielsen.

stewart@aspentimes.com


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