By David DeBoor Canfield
HARBACH Night Soundings. Gateway Festival Sym. A State Divided – A Missouri Sym. Jubilee Sym — David Angus, cond; 1Nicholas Betts (tp); London PO — MSR 1519 (61:03)
Having previously reviewed three full CDs of Barbara Harbach’s music, I feel that I am getting a good handle on her style. The CD under review here continues to cement my opinion that here is a composer in full command of her compositional craft, and who, even though she speaks with an uncompromising conservative and tonal voice, has something worthwhile to say in each of her works. This is not music by a mere musical dilettante, but by someone who is both possessed of a vivid musical imagination, and the craft to set down what she conceives. Her orchestration is masterful, and always “works.”
The four works heard on this CD, labeled as volume II of Harbach’s orchestral music, are all relatively brief, none lasting more than 18 minutes, and each cast in a three-movement structure. Opening the disc is Night Soundings, which was commissioned by Thomas F. George, and is comprised of the movements “Cloak of Darkness,” “Notturno,” and “Midnight Tango.” Nothing in the work sounds particularly ominous to me, but the work is evocative of the murmurings that characterize the dark hours. The last movement brings a departure from Harbach’s usual Americana-infused style, and slips far south of the border in its sultry tango atmosphere.
Following comes the Gateway Festival Symphony; the opening movement, “Confluencity,” contains some of the more subtly austere harmonies I’ve encountered in this composer’s music. These sonorities are meant to suggest the merging of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. The second movement, “Sunset St. Louis,” has a gentle tango rhythm underpinning its long flowing lyrical lines. “After Hours” begins with a trumpet call to arms which quickly yields to themes of grandeur suggesting to my ears the wide open spaces of the West. The movement is a paean to the people of the State of Missouri, and looks back to the pivotal role that Missouri played in the Civil War. History buffs will recall that the state sent troops to both sides of that internecine conflict between the states, and saw more battles fought on its territory than any of the other states save Virginia and Tennessee. The movement (and symphony) ends on an optimistic note with plenty of brass flourishes, perhaps meant to suggest the composer’s hope that such a conflagration will never again arise on American soil.
A State Divided – A Missouri Symphony is a companion work to the previous one, and is based upon similar themes drawn from the state’s history and its divided interest in the Civil War. The opening movement, depicting the Missouri Compromise, is based upon a “folk tune” of Harbach’s own composition, which spins forth the movement with harmonies that could be nothing other than American. The second movement, “Skirmish at Island Mound – African-American Regiment,” opens with rather ominous harmonies, redolent of impending disaster, but instead of leading into overt battle music, transforms into a square dance-like section that also utilizes another new folk song, this one quite lively. Occasional trumpet calls remind the listener that the piece is indeed connected to war, especially given the return of the ominous sonorities from the opening of the movement. The piece celebrates the first Union engagement (and victory) by a regiment composed of African-Americans. “The Battle of Westport – the battle that saved Missouri” looks back to one of the largest engagements of the War west of the Mississippi. Persistent ostinati and dramatic figurations including runs in the strings suggest the conflict, and these are augmented by the use of the “military” percussion, including cymbals, bass drum, and xylophone.
Closing the proceedings is Jubilee Symphony, a work commissioned by the University of Missouri, St. Louis. Its opening movement features a highly syncopated and irregular rhythmic figure over which Harbach’s signature flowing melodies rise. Shortly, a jig-like dance occurs, and indeed, the entire movement is permeated by a dance-like quality. The opening of the second movement provides a brief respite that evokes pastoral images, before returning to new dance rhythms.
Like the music on the previous CDs I reviewed, Harbach’s music never strays very far from the optimistic spirit of the American “can-do” mindset. This is music that is easy to love and appreciate, but without the shallowness exhibited by much music that would carry those particular descriptors. David Angus and his colleagues in the London Philharmonic Orchestra bring off these works in splendid fashion. In short, the disc is warmly recommended to those who are convinced that new tonal music still has something to offer the listener. If you’re not yet convinced by that premise, give these pieces a try, and see if you don’t yield to their charms.