Harbach Vol. 14: Chamber Music VI
Soprano, Violin, Piano & Chamber Orchestra
ST. LOUIS CHAMBER ORCHESTRA
James Richards, conductor
Stella Markou, soprano
Jennifer Mazzoni, flute
Jane Price, violin
Julia Sakharova, violin
Alla Voskoboynikova, piano
[ * * * * *] Five Stars / Grab this one off the online shelf!] The sound is pristine on this disc and soloists sound the way they would if the listener were sitting in an intimate hall dedicated to chamber music. This CD is not to be missed with its pieces on civil rights, women’s rights, and Native American History.”
Maria Nockin, Fanfare [November/December 2021]
“It is welcome to encounter new music that is tonal, melodic, emotionally communicative, and yet still sounds fresh. Such is the case with Barbara Harbach’s output. The first word that comes to mind as one listens is “beautiful.” This is music for any listener who enjoys, for instance, Vaughan Williams’ warmth and rich melodic style… All of the performances are committed and well executed. The recorded sound is warm and well balanced. It is fortunate that MSR provides texts, as the words are not always easily comprehensible from just listening. In the 1950s and 1960s it would have been difficult for a composer like Harbach to find performances, because of the rigidity of the musical establishment’s resistance to tonal and melodic music. Fortunately, we are beyond that now, and this gifted composer’s work is performed and recorded with some frequency.”
Henry Fogel, Fanfare [November/December 2021]
“[ * * * * Four Stars] The music of Barbara Harbach always seems to be a joy to review. The sense of open-air freshness to her music is irresistible, and it always seems to be so carefully constricted. Not a note wasted; Harbach knows what she wants to say and exactly how to say it… I have yet to be disappointed by anything Harbach has written. This disc acts as yet another affirmation of Harbach’s stature in American music today.”
Colin Clarke, Fanfare [November/December 2021]
“[ * * * * Four Stars / Accomplished and moving chamber works by American composer Barbara Harbach] A new CD from MSR Classics is Volume VI in a survey of the Chamber Music of the American composer, keyboard artist, and educator, Barbara Harbach. I always welcome the opportunity to hear and review Harbach’s music. Her compositions are notable for their melodic inspiration, lovely and transparent scoring, and keen sense of involvement with her subject matter. I also admire the optimistic, life-affirming atmosphere that pervades her work. This is not to say that Harbach’s music is unremittingly cheerful, even in moments that call for a darker mode of expression. But like Aaron Copland, whose spirit, I think may be found to some degree in her music, Harbach maintains faith in the human experience, and the possibility of hope… The booklet includes extensive and informative program notes, sung texts and artist bios. A release of considerable merit, and highly recommended.”
Ken Meltzer, Fanfare [November/December 2021]
“Harbach works in a tonal medium, with instrumental highlights that are effective… This is, in essence, “cause” music, skillfully created to make points… Listeners already familiar with Harbach’s work will enjoy having this disc.”
Mark J. Estren, InfoDad [September 2021]
The music of Barbara Harbach always seems to be a joy to review. The sense of open-air freshness to her music is irresistible, and it always seems to be so carefully constricted. Not a note wasted; Harbach knows what she wants to say and exactly how to say it.
The six movements of Civil-Civility for string orchestra with soprano, flute, violin and piano (2016) celebrates the acts of courage and the writings of women who have struggled to maintain a voice within patriarchal societies: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Margaret Mead, Ida Wells-Bennett and Sojourner Truth. Each musical portrait is strongly characterised, and the addition of soprano, violin, and piano to the second, “Gift of Mystery” is highly effective. Stella Markou is a fine soprano. There is something about Harbach’s writing that cuts straight to the heart, and one can certainly feel that in the third movement, “Memories of our lives,” inspired by Rosa Park. The overarching inspiration though is the ninth-century Kassia of Constantinople. Refusing to accept societal norms, she instead founded a convent.
The third movement is powerful: a passacaglia founded on the hymn tune O Sacred Head Now Wounded, it has a rigor hitherto not found in the work. The St Louis Chamber Orchestra is particularly convincing in this movement. It is the flute of Jennifer Mazzoni that shines through in the fourth movement, “Committed,” inspired by the American anthropologist and author Margaret Mead. Again, religious music forms part of the fabric, here as, in the movement’s second half, Martin Luther’s Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin (In peace and joy I now depart) makes itself known. The next movement, “Light of Truth,” celebrates the slave Ida Wells-Barnett (1862-1931), who became a journalist set against the barbarism of lynching. There is a peace to Harbach’s setting, and the composer reflects the search for truth by working with a finely-crafted set of variations. The final track is vocal: Stella Markou in fine voice for “Ain’t I a Woman,” a celebration of Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), who became the first black woman to win a custody case for her son. Within the space of a mere five minutes the music moves from the intensely personal (that initial cry of “Ain’t I A Woman”) through to something far more transcendent and celestial. Harbach’s music mirrors the beauty and the truth of these musing on the eternal.
It is difficult to imagine a finer performance than this one conducted by James Richards. I wonder if the recording is just a touch dry, though.
Scored for violin and piano, Visions of Hildegard celebrates another great woman: Hildegard of Bingen, a true polymath and genius whose own music is indeed celestially guided. Harbach takes three titles by Hildegard and locates their essence in her own time and expression while somehow maintaining the profound spirituality. The three movements are “O vis eternitatis” (O Power Within Eternity), “O nobilissima viriditas” (O Noblest Green Viridity) a d “O Ignee Spiritus” (O fiery Spirit). The occasional dance steps of “O nobilissima viriditas” sound impeccably American, as does the gentle repose of the easily gliding violin melody, so beautifully played by Jane Price. Anna Voskoboynikova is a fine partner here (the two instruments are very much equals); plus, the recording seems finer, less airless.
There is a definite feeling of the divertimento about the Cuatro Danzas for flute and piano (2018). The pronounced Spanish flavor reflects Harbach’s move to the American Southwest. Jennifer Mazzoni is a fine flautist, her sound absolutely stunning, particularly in the flute’s lower registers. The rather sultry third movement is of particular fascination, as it accelerates slowly but inevitably with the piano’s walking bass adding a laid-back feel. And although “Danza delirio” implies some sort of crazy dance, the reality is more controlled, the excitement coming instead from the tightness of ensemble from the two players.
Inspired by Jane Johnston Schoolcroft (a princess of the Native American Ojibwe tribe), The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky (2017) is a suite of four movements boasts two with texts by Harbach herself (the final two). The luxuriant first movement, “And Musing Awhile,” is a text by Schoolcroft (from Pemsive Hours); the second is a traditional Ojibwe Prayer, beautifully and touchingly set by Harbach and gloriously sung by Markou; Jane Price’s violin is a vibrant obbligato. The generosity of expression in the third song (which takes its title from the overall title of the collection) is positively Romantic in gesture, particularly perhaps the final, flung-out high note for voice. The title of the final movement, “Trial of Tears” refers to the forced marches in eastern Oklahoma; it was coined by the Cherokee. The story is told here through the eyes of a child; Harbach’s setting is potent and uncompromising; a remarkable way to close the disc.
**** I have yet to be disappointed by anything Harbach has written. This disc acts as yet another affirmation of Harbach’s stature in American music today.
Colin Clarke, Fanfare Magazine Interview [September 2021]
Barbara Harbach is well known for composing music for orchestra, chamber ensemble, voice, and keyboard. She is also active in researching and promoting the music of women composers from the past when their work was rarely published and generally unrecognized. Harbach holds a masters degree from Yale, a concert diploma from the Frankfurt Conservatory, and a doctorate from the Eastman School of Music. Currently an award-winning professor emerita from the University of Missouri at St. Louis, she was recently named One of the Thirty Most Innovative Professors Alive Today.
Harbach opens her compact disc performance of Civil-Civility for String Orchestra with Soprano, Flute, Violin, and Piano. The work is divided into six movements, each devoted to a female rights activist. Elizabeth Cady Stanton is described in Sentiments, Eleanor Roosevelt in Gift of Mystery, Rosa Parks in Memories of Our Lives, Margaret Meade in Committed, Ida Wells-Barnett in Light of Truth, and Sojourner Truth in Ain’t I a Woman. We should not forget that Harbach, herself, suffered discrimination because of her gender in the twentieth century. Each movement of Civil-Civility is a cogent meditation on its subject. Her tonal, melodic music retains the power of her drive for equality as do the performances of the soloists and orchestra. Soprano Stella Markou, flutist Jennifer Mazzoni, violinist Julia Sakharova, and pianist Alla Voskoboynikova contribute mightily to the glory of this rendition.
Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was an exception to the usual rules for women of her time because as nun and the founder of convents, she was not bound by obedience to a superior or a husband. Visions of Hildegard for Violin and Piano is composed in three movements. The first, O Vis Eternitatis, is a responsory for the creator and redeemer. The second, O Noblissima Viriditas, is a responsory for virgins, and the final movement, O Ignee Spiritus, is a memorable hymn to the Holy Spirit. Each movement combines the spirituality and simplicity of Hildegard with the intense musicality of Harbach’s setting for violin and piano. Cuatro Danzas for Flute and Piano, played by Mazzini and Voskoboynikova, is a rhythmic secular piece that invites listeners to tap their feet. It is most refreshing after the serious civil rights work and the mystical religious work.
Some starry night take an old country road to the top of a mountain. Stop far above the city lights, beyond the traffic and listen. Can you not hear The Sound the Stars Make Rushing through the Sky? Then pop Harbach’s disc in the player and enjoy her musical version of the phenomenon. The Sound the Stars Make Rushing through the Sky for Soprano, Violin, and Piano lets you see the starry sky and hear its magical sounds even when you are in the middle of a busy town. Harbach’s music encompasses peace and tranquility along with the picture of the lovely, Indigenous Jane Schoolcraft who tells us a poignant tale of her vanished world. The passionate rendition by soprano Stella Markou, violinist Jane Price, and pianist Alla Voskoboynikova is a revelation for those of us who have forgotten the treatment of Native Americans in the past.
The sound is pristine on this disc and soloists sound the way they would if the listener were sitting in an intimate hall dedicated to chamber music. This CD is not to be missed with its pieces on civil rights, women’s rights, and Native American History. Five Stars. Grab this one off the online shelf!
Maria Nockin Fanfare Magazine [November-December 2021]