Zinman leads Boston Symphony in powerful Harbison premiere

January 13, 2012
By David Wright

John Harbison with conductor David Zinman and soloist Paula Murrihy following the world premiere of Harbison's Symphony No. 6 Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

In 1809, Ludwig van Beethoven’s patron and pupil, Archduke Rudolph, had to leave Vienna suddenly because of an approaching French army. Beethoven composed a piano sonata about it, which became known as the “Les Adieux” Sonata.

In 2011, John Harbison’s friend and supporter, James Levine, had to leave the music directorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra suddenly because of poor health.  Harbison composed a symphony about it—or rather, the symphony he was already working on for Levine suddenly found him contemplating some “adieux” of his own.

On Thursday, the BSO presented the world premiere of that work, Harbison’s Symphony No. 6, in Symphony Hall, led not by the work’s muse and dedicatee but by another conductor long associated with Harbison’s music, David Zinman.

This performance also marked the completion of Levine’s plan to conduct all of Harbison’s symphonies over two BSO seasons, ending with the newest one, commissioned by this orchestra.   It was brave and generous of Zinman to mount the podium on a night when the absence of the departed leader would inevitably be keenly felt.

The program also included works by Weber, Beethoven, and Strauss, but, as intended, Harbison’s symphony left the strongest impression of the evening.  It is a masterpiece of mixed emotions, still showing signs of the confident, robust tribute to James Levine that Harbison intended to write, yet colored throughout by recollection of its wistful first movement—the one the composer says he changed the most in response to the news of Levine’s departure.

That opening section is also the only one of the symphony’s four movements that uses the human voice.  We are used to hearing composers such as Beethoven, Mahler, and Harbison (in his Fifth Symphony, performed earlier this season by the BSO) introducing texts and singers late in a symphony, to unpack the music’s meaning.  Harbison’s unusual approach here–the singer performing at the work’s beginning, then leaving the stage—has the effect of a musical epigraph, a text to meditate on while listening to the orchestral music that follows.  In this piece, it may also serve as a metaphor for unexpected departure.

The poem the composer chose, James Wright’s Entering the Temple in Nimes, contains still more departure metaphors (“…the young women of Gaul/Glanced back thoughtfully over their bare/White shoulders and hurried away…”) along with a yearning for rebirth and renewal.  Harbison devotes the first movement entirely to this setting, going so far as to have the mezzo-soprano soloist begin the symphony by singing a phrase without accompaniment (surely a first in the symphonic repertoire).

The Irish mezzo Paula Murrihy delivered Harbison’s well-crafted phrases in a voice that reminded one of ivory—firm, smooth, subtly colored, and readily shaped.  And powerful enough to drown out the orchestral accompaniment in the movement’s opening bars.  But balance problems were soon solved, and by the time she strode off stage left, Murrihy had given an account of the poem that would resonate throughout the work.

Harbison has mentioned many composers as influences on his style, but rarely, if ever, the American symphonists of the mid-20th century.  Still, it is hard to hear the expressive counterpoint of broad string melodies in this symphony’s second movement without thinking of the big-shoulders sound of Roy Harris and William Schuman– whose rugged and influential Third symphonies were both premiered in this hall seven decades ago.  Harbison uses wind and brass lines to tighten the counterpoint and even closes the movement, Mahler-like, with an ironic comment from the Hungarian cimbalom, whose folkish, acidic twang caused audience heads to turn Thursday night.

The third movement, a scherzo in all but name, crackles with rhythms grouped in twos and threes and bright, sassy scoring, a kind of Latin jazz familiar to American ears.  It closes with another touch of irony, a rattle of bones in the cimbalom and col legno strings.

The passionate yet enigmatic finale required all of Zinman’s considerable powers of concentration and propulsion to hold it together, as the music swung unpredictably from fervent leaps and swoops to moments of taciturn reflection—ending, quite startlingly, with a mezzoforte phrase that just stopped, as if the composer had been unexpectedly called away.  Was this abrupt ending one more metaphor for a life in music interrupted? Harbison’s compelling new symphony, forcefully realized by Zinman and the BSO, raises as many questions as the experience of loss itself.

The concert began with a jaunty rendering of Weber’s Euryanthe Overture in which Zinman treated the piece as the strange and wonderful thing it is, not just a placeholder on a program.

By contrast, he opened Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major with an orchestral exposition that sounded oddly cushiony and rhythmically out of focus, a throwback to the plush sound of Beethoven performances a half century ago.  Piano soloist Leif Ove Andsnes didn’t exactly contradict Zinman when he entered, but his wonderfully fluent and shapely playing swept one along quite happily, at least until one started yearning for an accent, any accent.  Similarly, the concluding movements could have used less cool perfection and more personality; at least the Norwegian pianist provided some affecting moments in the Largo, and a dash of sauce here and there in the closing rondo.

In an inspired piece of turn-on-a-dime programming, Harbison’s earnest meditations were followed by the symphonic clowning of Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. Under Zinman’s direction, the Boston players expertly created all of Strauss’s extravagant, cinematic special effects, and yet the performance didn’t quite pay off.  It was just too polite to go where it needed to go, to the sheer nose-thumbing insolence and appalling sentimentality that might have made this performance a worthy comic foil to Harbison’s powerful new symphony.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 8 p.m. Tuesday. bso.org; 617-266-1200.

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