Harbach Vol. 11: Orchestral Music III
Volume 11 [MS 1614]
The London Philharmonic Orchestra
David Angus, conductor
Symphony #7 “O Pioneers!”
Symphony #8 “The Scarlet Letter”
Symphony #9 “Celestial Symphony”
Symphony #10 “Symphony for Ferguson”
“Works on this symphonies disc fall into the “excellent” category and are quite moving and enthralling. Her style doesn’t vary too much—I can’t see her music existing without other of the “American” school like Harris and Thomson—but her ideas, in many instances, bolster the exceptional construction and immersion into a truly tonal idiom that is her hallmark… This is a very fine disc with some wonderful music… The London Phil plays with passion and energy in a wonderfully resonant recording.”
Steven Ritter, Audiophile Audition [November 2017]
“[the London Philharmonic] play splendidly… Everything is superbly orchestrated, and is aided by a transparent recording… [the music] does supply an agreeable experience… The Pioneers Symphony is spacious and lucid, like a film score, building to a jubilant coda… The brass are wonderful [In the ‘St Louis Blues’]”.
Sullivan, American Record Guide [May/June 2017]
“MSR Classics have used the London Philharmonic for each of the three orchestral works’ volumes… certainly one that guarantees excellent performances. As I have noted, the notes are very good; they are written in the third person, but with a detail that suggests substantial input from the composer. Sound is equally good. If you enjoy contemporary works with tunes, and do not require to be drawn into complex musical arguments, then you should investigate Barbara Harbach’s well-crafted music.”
David Barker, MusicWeb International [May 2017]
“…three rather fine works and in excellent performances by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the knowing baton of David Angus. The sound reproduction is vivid and powerful, and the album notes are very informative and highly detailed. If you’re interested in very accessible contemporary orchestral music, this MSR Classics disc may be of strong interest to you.”
Robert Cummings, ClassicalNet [May 2017]
“The consistent high standard of Harbach’s music, coupled with her consistency of expressive means, is massively impressive… The first thing to note is the standard of performance throughout. The London Philharmonic is going through something of a heyday these days… The orchestra plays immensely responsively here under David Angus; there is a lovely sense of flow and inevitability to the slower sections of these works… it is difficult to imagine finer, fresher versions… Fascinating to see how opera, literature, film, and American music in its various forms all inform Harbach’s completely unique and immensely strong style. The recording team deserve credit also, for the sound is first-rate… This is fantastic, stimulating music by a master craftswoman.”
Colin Clarke, Fanfare [May/June 2017]
“All four [symphonies] are well-constructed and show considerable ability in handling large orchestral forces. [Harbach] shows a sure sense of style, and comfort with modern compositional techniques without slavish devotion to them. The four symphonies here are four cases in point: each is in the traditional three movements, each lasts 15 to 20 minutes, each is programmatic, and each sounds different from the others but recognizable as Harbach’s for those familiar with her style.”
Mark J. Estren, InfoDad [February 2017]
“Harbach continues to impress with her fluent compositional craft in these works… David Angus and the London Philharmonic Orchestra do a splendid job in bringing these pieces to life. Pacing and accuracy of ensemble are especially noteworthy attributes of these premiere recordings.”
David DeBoor Canfield, Fanfare [January/February 2017]
“Harbach is an economical symphonist — the works are uniformly short, focused, and efficiently orchestrated… Harbach shows a great deal of imagination and variety… [In Symphony No.7 “O, Pioneer”] Harbach manages to evoke the great expanse of the Nebraska prairie without for a moment sounding like Aaron Copland. No mean feat… I enjoyed this release. Barbara Harbach is a composer who follows her own muse, and I continue to admire her originality.”
Ralph Graves, Finding Beauty in Ephemera [January 2017]
Barbara Harbach has nurtured a career as a harpsichordist, organist and teacher, but she’s also a prolific composer whose large canon includes, as of 2016, 10 symphonies. In this third volume of her orchestral music, subtitled ‘Portraits in Sound’, Symphonies Nos 7-10 are performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under David Angus.
Each of the symphonies has a moniker that evokes the descriptive nature of Harbach’s concise, three-movement essays. No 7 is called O Pioneers! after the Harbach opera from which the music drawn. The central characters of Hester, Chillingworth and Dimmesdale from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter are depicted in Symphony No. 8, while Symphony No. 9 (Celestial Symphony) is derived from a Harbach silent-movie score and Symphony No 10 (Symphony for Ferguson) commemorates the 2014 killing and riots in Ferguson, Missouri.
Harbach’s writing hearkens back to Romanticism, with sweeping lyricism, richly layered lines and harmonies unfolding in a confident tonal style.
These symphonies are akin to mini-tone poems, full of thematic material that provides dramatic focus and summons an array of atmospheres and emotional states. In Symphony No 10 Harbach is especially effective employing beloved spirituals and popular tunes (including WC Handy’s ‘St Louis Blues’) to drive home messages of courage and tolerance.
The cinematic nature of the symphonies receives lavish treatment by Angus and the London Philharmonic, who illuminate every detail in these skillfully crafted scores.
Harbach’s music could hardly be better served.
Donald Rosenberg, Gramophone, April 2017
I remember reading an interview with Barbara Harbach in Fanfare magazine in 1996, wherein the interviewer spent most of the time focusing on her keyboard talents, on her work to promote the music of female and other often neglected composers, and on other musical activities of hers. Very little attention was paid to Harbach the composer. But at the time she was certainly better known as a keyboard player, particularly on the organ and harpsichord. While that may still be true, I’ll guess she would rather be known as a composer first.
Born in 1946, Harbach has produced a large output that includes many orchestral and keyboard works, musicals, choral and chamber music, film scores, sacred music and various others pieces. Listening to the music on this disc, I would surmise that Ms. Harbach is an incurable optimist, a composer who sees life in a nearly always positive way, generally not brooding over tragedy or personal disappointment, or at least expressing them in a less negative way.
Even in the Symphony #8, subtitled “The Scarlet Letter”, the music depicting Roger Chillingworth (second movement), which you would expect to be dark and sinister, comes across as conflicted and disturbing alright, but it also has a sense of hope and brightness, at least to my ears. I think I can say that I have heard few composers who can match her beaming joy and almost unrelenting optimism. But, you ask, does the plentiful happiness translate into something good?
If I can judge from the music on this CD, Harbach is not a composer of just passing interest but appears to offer substantial rewards. The works here are mostly a joy to listen to and I believe many people unfamiliar with her vast output may well want to sample some of it. She could serve for many as the antidote to the dark music of so many 20th and 21st century musical nihilists. Her compositions, at least on this disc, are generally upbeat, devoid of grand design, mostly light in mood, and straightforward and accessible. There are no pretenses here, the music mostly avoiding complexity and generally not reaching to the depths of profundity. Stylistically, her works here are related to that of early to mid-20th century American composers, and at certain moments may call to mind such composers as David Diamond and Roy Harris, though her music is ultimately quite individual. Wind instruments, particularly brass, often carry the main line, and while thematic material can come across at times as somewhat threadbare, the various movements and the works themselves compensate in their brevity.
The Symphony #7, subtitled “O Pioneers”, is in three movements and lasts fifteen minutes, pretty close to the length of each of the works here. Its music was derived from Harbach’s opera, O Pioneers! An American Opera and depicts several of its scenes. The symphony contains fine music in its uplifting manner, having a muscular, rugged character much of the time, but also conveying a sense of triumph and joy. Symphony #9, subtitled “Celestial Symphony”, is another joyous work, this time of religious inspiration as it was adapted from Harbach’s score for the film The Birth, Life and Death of Christ. This is another fine effort, lighter though than you would expect for a work on such serious subject matter. “The Scarlet Letter” Symphony may be the strongest composition on the disc: it’s quite probing in its depictions of Hawthorne’s three main characters (Hester Prynne, Roger Chillingworth, and Arthur Dimmesdale) and has a weightier expressive language than the other works.
The first three symphonies on the disc are quite compelling works then, but I believe the longest work (nearly nineteen minutes), the Symphony #10, subtitled “Symphony for Ferguson”… is making a sincere attempt here to heal wounds opened by the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. She is also addressing issues relating to loss of life through war and injustice (second movement) and making a plea for peace and hope (third movement). Still, you have three rather fine works and in excellent performances by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the knowing baton of David Angus. The sound reproduction is vivid and powerful, and the album notes are very informative and highly detailed. If you’re interested in very accessible contemporary orchestral music, this MSR Classics disc may be of strong
interest to you.
Robert Cummings, Classical Net [May 2017]
The cause of American composer Barbara Harbach was strongly promoted on this site by the late Bob Briggs. After his death, reviews became less common, though always positive. When this release appeared on the review list, I decided it was time that our readers were reminded of her name and music.
The Connecticut-based label, MSR Classics, has been a staunch supporter of Harbach: this is the label’s eleventh release, and the third in the series of orchestral works; there is also one titled Music for Strings. Harbach is a prolific composer, educator, concert harpsichordist and organist, whose music is firmly tonal and in the tradition of Copland in Appalachian Spring mode, without sounding like the great man. Much of her work is programmatic, as
illustrated by these four symphonies, all of which have a story to tell.
The sub-title for the release – Orchestral Portraits – is a more accurate depiction of these works than the term “symphony”, which suggests something rather more formal in structure. One might call these four pieces tone poems. Whatever they may be called, the pleasure in spending an hour in their presence is undeniable.
Symphonies 7 & 9 reuse previous Harbach compositions. The former uses three songs from her opera of the same name, based on a Willa Cather novel, using the music to paint portraits of some of the characters. The feel of the music is certainly broad and expansive, matching the Nebraska setting… exceptionally well-crafted and very enjoyable.
The ninth symphony is an arrangement of excerpts of music from a score written for a St Louis screening in 2014 of a 1906 silent movie, The Birth, Life and Death of Christ. The three movements portray episodes in the life of Jesus. While the music is again very enjoyable…Some of the brass and percussion elements reminded me of Alan Hovhaness, but that may have been a subconscious connection because of a similarly titled symphony of his.
Symphony 8 is based on the famous novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and the three movements are portraits of three of the main characters Hester, Chillingworth & Dimmesdale. I haven’t read the story, so I can only go by the comprehensive booklet notes, in terms of how the music matches the personalities. I can report that it certainly does and is a darker work than the seventh and ninth.
Symphony 10 was inspired, if that is the correct word, by the terrible events in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Should you need reminding, they were the shooting of a black man by a police officer, and the subsequent days of riots. Again Harbach uses some previous material, but in this case, it is only a theme from her opera Booth!, about the shooting of Abraham Lincoln. There are also references to a spiritual “Wade in the water” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. The work is stirring, but not angry; apparently, it was Harbach’s way of coming to terms with the events in her home state. Of the four works,
it is my favourite.
MSR Classics have used the London Philharmonic for each of the three orchestral works’ volumes, an interesting choice – but certainly one that guarantees excellent performances. As I have noted, the notes are very good; they are written in the third person, but with a detail that suggests substantial input from the composer. Sound is equally good.
If you enjoy contemporary works with tunes, and do not require to be drawn into complex musical arguments, then you should investigate Barbara Harbach’s well-crafted music.
David Barker, Music Web International
Volume 11 in this impressive series proves a winner.
This is the eleventh volume of MSR’s extraordinary commitment to Barbara Harbach, polyglot extraordinaire, by the looks of her resume one of the busiest musicians on the planet, wonderful keyboardist (organ and harpsichord), and a very fine composer. In fact, her prolific output defies all normal ideas of time management, and she must spill out music like Mozart with a never-ending sense of inspiration.
I am happy to report that most the works on this symphonies disc fall into the “excellent” category and are quite moving and enthralling. Her style doesn’t vary too much—I can’t see her music existing without other of the “American” school like Harris and Thomson—but her ideas, in many instances, bolster the exceptional construction and immersion into a truly tonal idiom that is her hallmark.
“O Pioneers”, her Seventh Symphony, is taken from her opera of the same name. The three movements are based on three songs portraying the four main characters of Willa Cather’s novel. “The Scarlett Letter” is her Eighth Symphony, an original work based also on the main characters of Hawthorne’s masterpiece. Both symphonies share a similar tone, with the Eighth a magnificent example of character-based tone painting, evocative orchestration, and moving melodic ideas.
Harbach penned a film score The Celestial Symphony based on a 1906 silent movie, “The Birth, Life, and Death of Christ”. The three movements “Annunciation”, “Celestial Vaults” (reflecting on St. Veronica) and “Temptations” (three temptations that Satan offered Christ before his crucifixion) are drawn from the inner depths Harbach undoubtedly feels from all her years involved with sacred music. Having not seen the film I cannot comment on the efficacy of the visual/ aural experience, but the music as it stands is most attractive and evocative.
Her 10th Symphony, “Ferguson”, is titled after the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri mess that received worldwide attention. Not living in St. Louis—and working there, as Harbach does—the immediacy of emotion and response no doubt eludes me, and I can see why an artist in that sort of highly-charged environment might feel the need to comment on current events. And to her credit she does not take sides or enter the purely political aspects of the event…
for this is a very fine disc with some wonderful music that should assuage any concerns about Harbach’s muse—a very active, intelligent, and moving one. The London Phil plays with passion and energy in a wonderfully resonant recording.
Steven Ritter, Audiophile Audition, 2017