Fanfare Magazine – September/October 2015
Meet Barbara Harbach
By Lynn Rene Bayley
Pennsylvania native Barbara Harbach, who studied organ and harpsichord at Penn State, received a master’s degree at Yale, and then a doctoral degree in organ and composition from the Eastman School of Music, has been one of the busiest performers in America. Her Wikipedia page tells us that following graduation she also studied organ at the Frankfurt Musikhochschule with the legendary Helmut Walcha. Interestingly, he told her that “he did not believe that women belonged on the organ bench.” That statement has been more than refuted by her being ranked in 1992 by Keyboard magazine as second to Keith Jarrett as “Top Keyboard Artist” in classical music, as well as her numerous organ and harpsichord recitals in North America, Asia, Europe, and Siberia. As also indicated on Wikipedia, she presented a weekly television series, Palouse Performance, broadcast in the northwest U.S.
Her many compositions in various genres and forms, from solo works to orchestral and choral pieces, have received awards. The Music of Barbara Harbach, Vol. 1 was named “record of the year 2008” by MusicWeb International and received a Critics’ Choice award from American Record Guide. Her works have also been praised in the pages of this journal by David DeBoor Canfield, and I was very impressed with her previous recording of works by Arnold Rosner and
Daniel Pinkham. She is a staunch champion of women composers: in 1993 she co-founded the Women of Note Quarterly and is now editor of WomenArts Quarterly Journal, despite her busy duties as Curators’ Professor of Music at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where she teaches performance, composition, and related classes.
I was fortunate enough to be able to catch up with Harbach via e-mail for this interview.
Q: Barbara, I hardly know where to begin with this interview! You wear so many hats and have accomplished so much. Perhaps I should start by asking you which of your accomplishments you are personally most proud of: performing, composing, teaching, or proselytizing for other women composers?
A: I love them all! Whatever I am doing at the moment is the one that captures my imagination and energy. I do have to admit that teaching, composing, and editing is a bit easier than sitting at the organ or harpsichord for seven straight hours, but I do love to do it anyway! I have found my career changing over the years. At first, I thought I wanted to be a performing and recording artist, and played many recitals and performances beginning in the 1970s. In the 1980s I went to the British Library and ordered and received reels of historical women and men keyboard composers, and thus was born Vivace Press. (This was before the era of pdfs and e-mail.) My vision was to recover, record, and publish the music of these talented women composers. What really charged my ambition to do this was an incident at an eastern university. I was asked to give an organ recital, and at the reception after the performance, I mentioned to a musicologist that I was interested in recovering the music of historical women composers. He said to me, “If there were any women composers, they wouldn’t be very good.” That was the gauntlet! In addition, the review headline of that night’s recital read, “Tight Slacks, Organist in Good Form.”
Q: I can’t imagine that a double major in harpsichord and organ is as common as that of harpsichord and piano. What drew you to the organ as your other instrument, rather than the more similar piano?
A: I played for my first church service when I was nine years old. I was sufficiently tall to be able to reach the pedals. The first hymn I played was Bringing in the Sheaves, and to this day I can play it in any key. The church service was held in my grandparent’s “saloon,” where there was an old harmonium that you had to pump with your feet, and I certainly developed great calf muscles! The “saloon” was in the hotel that my grandparents owned in central Pennsylvania, and since the county became dry, it was a saloon in name only. I graduated to a Hammond organ a few years later when we went to another church, and then in high school came one of the loves of my life, the pipe organ. The sound of the pipe organ still gives me a thrill, whether soft strings or drowning out the orchestra as in Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra.
I should mention that I took piano lessons beginning when I was four. My mother was my first teacher, and it was a wonderful way to bond with her. She was a terrific supporter of my musical career. I knew I wanted to be in music since I began lessons, and I enjoy the various facets that my career has led me.
I think I was drawn to the harpsichord because of the similarity of touch between the harpsichord and the tracker organ. When you press a key on the harpsichord, the pluck of the string gives a slight resistance similar to the feel of depressing a key on a tracker organ. Also, harpsichordists and organists use much less wrist and body motion than pianists, and we do not need the upper body muscles required by pianists.
Q: I suppose the next question should be who were the organists and/or harpsichordists who influenced you—the ones who inspired you to take up these instruments?
A: For 20th century harpsichordists, I particularly admire and respect Wanda Landowska, as well as Gustav Leonhardt, Raymond Leppard, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Igor Kipnis, Ton Koopman, Sylvia Marlowe, Daniel Pinkham, Colin Tilney, Rosalyn Tureck, Fernando Valenti, Elisabeth Chojnacka, and many others.
For organists, I came of age with Helmut Walcha, Virgil Fox, E. Power Biggs, Marie-Claire Alain, and Gillian Weir; and now there is a whole crop of extremely talented contemporary organists. I still marvel that pipe organs, both large and small, are being built and installed in many churches in this rather cynical and perhaps non-church age.
Q: If I may, I would like to ask a couple of questions regarding Helmut Walcha, since he is such an icon to so many of our critics and readers. I know that you had difficulties with him, but was there anything positive that you were able to get from the experience?
A: Oh, absolutely! He was a gifted organist, improviser, and composer! He would play Evensong every week at his church for free, the Dreikönigskirche in Frankfurt, where the audience would consist of only six or so of us students. When he would give a public recital that had a hefty ticket price, the church was packed. Go figure! At Yale, I studied with Charles Krigbaum, who had studied with Walcha, and I admired the articulations and interpretations of Krigbaum, which fueled my desire to study with Walcha. I was fortunate to be awarded a Deutscher Akademischner Austausdienst to study with Walcha. Interestingly, Russell Saunders, with whom I studied at Eastman, was Walcha’s first American student, and I was his last. While at the Frankfurt Musikhochschule, I was fortunate to receive the Konzert Diplom under Walcha. For my qualifying concert, Walcha would not coach Widor or any American compositions. In his defense, his forte was Germanic composers, and his forte was really a fortissimo!
Q: And now, a different question, same topic: did Walcha really have no respect even for those women organists who had become famous? I doubt that he would have heard of such organists as Mary Cherubim Schafer, but as a European-based organist he might have heard of Anne Maddocks, who worked at the famed Chichester Cathedral from 1942 to 1949, and he had to have known of Marie-Claire Alain (who, incidentally, was one of my personal heroes when growing up).
A: These are all wonderful women organists! And Marie-Claire Alain is one of my icons, also. Perhaps Walcha responded to the culture of his time, by not believing that women could be outstanding organists, so why teach them? Women would only get married and not use their training, so why waste a spot in the academy for them? The culture of suppressing women composers and performers goes centuries back in Germany and other countries. Just think of Fanny Mendelssohn and the struggles she and many other women had to endure to get their music recognized. How many women’s compositions were left to languish in attics, only to be thrown out by future generations! So much has been lost over the centuries.
Q: On a different topic, I was very happy to learn of your support for women composers. Nancy Van de Vate once told me that the unwritten rule in most American symphony orchestras is that perhaps one major composition per year by a woman composer is programmed; otherwise, it’s back to the men. A friend of mine who considers himself enlightened once told me that he thinks this is only fair because “men write so much more music”!!! I would guess that you disagree with this as much as I do?
A: Absolutely; just check out the International Alliance for Women in Music, New York Women Composers, Society of Composers Inc., Donne in Musica, and American Composers Forum, just to name a few, and there are many, many women composers. According to the League of American Orchestras, only 1–2% of pieces played by orchestras in the United States are composed by women—what a shame! We write exciting, visceral, and beautiful music but cannot get it programmed. In the introduction to my book, Women in the Arts: Eccentric Essays II (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2015), I tried to address the issue of why there is a need for books about women in the arts, exhibitions of women painters, readings of women’s poetry, concerts of music by women composers, and conferences highlighting women in the arts. It is an ongoing struggle for equity.
Q: I guess I really should ask where you come down on the recent revelation that Anna Magdalena Bach may have composed some of her husband’s music—an article in The Telegraph by Ivan Hewitt suggests the Cello Suites. I can’t imagine that living with and even playing her husband’s music on a daily basis wouldn’t have rubbed off on her, as it did on his sons?
A: I think this is a fascinating thesis! Anna studied with the best, and I believe that Bach’s creativity ignited hers! Or consider some other 18th century women composers such as Elizabeth Billington, Anna Bon, and Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre, who wrote music as teenagers and then went on to have other careers or dropped out of composition or got married and tended to a large estate. Elizabeth Billington, (1765/1768–1818) wrote her Opus 1 at the tender age of eight years old, and her mature Opus 2 at age eleven. Her sonatas compare favorably to Mozart’s at the same age. Elizabeth went on to become one of England’s most outstanding operatic sopranos. The CD I recorded, half Billington and half Mozart, is still available as Classical Prodigies: Elizabeth Weichsell Billington/Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Hester Park, CD 7703, Vivace Press (www.vivacepress.com) I enjoyed working with Elizabeth’s music, and her second marriage was tumultuous. She and her husband would separate and then reconcile, until in the last reconciliation he took her to Italy and then murdered her. I talked with one of her descendants in England and asked if the story were true, and she told me that it was true. Elizabeth’s story and career, from child prodigy composer to famous soprano, a jealous husband, and a murder, is a made-for-TV movie waiting to happen!
Q: If I may ask about Palouse Performance, which I’ve never seen: what kind of show is it?
Performances by you, or a music discussion show with musical guests like the once-famous radio show St. Paul Sunday?
A: As the host of the show, Palouse Performance was a wonderful opportunity for me in the Palouse in the 1990s when I was professor of music at Washington State University, which is a region located in eastern Washington surrounding Pullman. It is a large wheat-growing area, and each day the rolling fields of wheat seemed to change in color and depth. Palouse Performance showcased talent from Washington as well as performers passing through the region. We did everything from classical to blues, jazz, rock, and I also did performances on clavichord, harpsichord and organ. One of my favorite shows was a woman composer/performer who wrote her country-western song, I’m Gonna Fax My Baby Some Love (faxing was still new in the 1990s). The fertile Palouse region inspired my Frontier Fancies for Violin and Orchestra.
Q: To briefly discuss your CD of music by Rosner and Pinkham, I was really wowed by the fact that such interesting modern music was composed for the harpsichord. Do you also work for more pieces like this? A body of modern works for harpsichord in addition to the 18th-century repertoire?
A: Yes, I am totally supportive of contemporary harpsichord composers and music. I recorded four CDs of contemporary harpsichord music featuring the music of Van Appledorn, Borroff, Zwilich, Diemer, Starer, Stern, Read, Rose, Martinu, Thomson, Albright, Adler, Sowash, Templeton, Fine, Near, Jones and Locklair. I think Rosner’s Musiqe de Clavecin is an incredible piece and not for the faint-of-heart technically! His portraits of women are fascinating and intriguing.
I have also recorded contemporary organ composers such as Adler, Locklair, Bitgood, Marga Richter, Zwilich, Julia Smith, Ethel Smyth, Violet Archer, Gardner Read, Gwyneth Walker and Jeanne Demessieux.
Q: How would you characterize your style on the harpsichord, as compared to other well-known harpsichordists currently active?
A: It seems to me I incorporate a lot of articulations and performance practices, and I pay close attention to melodic contours and harmonic foundations, which probably stems from my organ technique. I like to hear the harpsichord played with a fluid technique, and let the music speak for itself, without imposing the performer’s personality on it.
Q: In your new set of the keyboard sonatas of Antonio Soler, how did you go about sorting through the manuscripts and deciding the correct performance style?
A: It was a long process. For some reason, I bought the entire works of Soler some time before I even thought of recording the sonatas. I used the Samuel Rubio edition of his 120 sonatas for the recording. I am glad I got them when I did, since you can no longer get the Rubio editions. First, I analyzed all the movements for form and melodic repetitions. Then I listened to many recordings of Soler by various artists, and all had some fine interpretations, but when I sat down
to record, I knew how I was going to interpret them – somewhere between Baroque and early Classical. I enjoyed the journey of researching and recording them, and it took two decades to get them all done. At one point, I didn’t know if I would ever complete them, but various serendipitous events allowed me to continue. I am happy I persevered, and I thank Rob LaPorta and Richard Price of MSR Classics and Candlewood Digital, respectively, who did a superb job on the final mastering and packaging, and I thank Roy Christensen of Gasparo Records, who started and believed in the recording project.
Q: I’m particularly curious about the various repeated movements that you enumerated in your liner notes to the Soler set: Sonata 96 duplicating Sonata 41, and movements in Sonatas 42, 45, 54, and 60 being recycled in later sonatas. Do you suspect, as I did, that Soler himself might have actually done this? And if not, why include the duplications?
A: I wrestled and struggled with whether or not to include the duplicates, and decided that whether Soler put the duplicates together, and/or Rubio did, it seems to make the sonatas more complete when they contain the duplicates. On the lighter side, perhaps Soler or Rubio had so many sonatas and movements to contend with that they forgot they had included them earlier!
Q: I’m wondering how on earth you balance all your activities in the course of a year. I can’t imagine that it’s particularly easy to be teacher, researcher, performer, editor, and composer. Somewhere along the line, there has to be less time for one of these activities. How do you manage it?
A: A good question! Luckily, I am a morning person and start work, whether composing, rehearsing, preparing syllabi/tests, or proofing an article or manuscript, early in the morning before the flood of e-mails, phone calls and disturbances (usually by my four cats!). Summer is a good time for academics to recharge and do all the creative endeavors that had to be put off during the academic year. I like to do projects that I can become passionate about—women in the arts and mentoring students. Like all of us, if we enjoy what we are doing, it’s not work, and we might even get paid for it!
Q: Do you have any immediate plans, as performer or in the recording studio, that you would like to share with our readers?
A: I have some excellent 18th-century manuscripts tucked away of women and men composers that seem to be insisting I should introduce them to the listening public, so I will begin the editing, publishing and recording process with them.
Thank you for your stimulating questions and letting me recall the gentle past, which none of us does in these aggressive and motivating times.
SOLER Harpsichord Sonatas Nos. 1–120 • Barbara Harbach (hpd) • MSR 1300 (14 CDs: 1,041:09)
Fanfare Magazine: Lynn Bayley, September/October 2015
Fanfare Magazine – September/October 2014
Fanning the Flames of Tonality: The Music of Barbara Harbach
By David Deboor Canfield
Fanfare readers have met Barbara Harbach in interviews by Robert Schulslaper in 33:3 and Colin Clarke in 35:6. In the latter issue, I also reviewed three CDs of her engagingly tonal music, expressing my considerable admiration for her compositional gifts. This is not, however, a one-sided woman, as she is also well-known as a keyboard player, most recently specializing in the organ. That she is still busy as a composer is evidenced by the CD on which I interviewed her in late May of 2014, attempting not to re-walk the paths explored by my two colleagues.
Q. Barbara, in the earlier interviews, you mention having worked with, and having been influenced by Samuel Adler and Mel Powell. Yet your music sounds nothing like theirs. Who or what formed your romantic musical aesthetic and language?
A. I was fortunate enough to take classes with Mel Powell at Yale University as well as a semester with Sam Adler at the Eastman School of Music. From Mel I learned to appreciate improvisatory ingenuity and from Sam rhythmic athleticism. Composers often write what they like to hear, and I adore listening to Howard Hanson, Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Mary Howe, Thea Musgrave, Gian Carlo Menotti, Adolphus Hailstork, and, of course, Ralph Vaughan Williams as well as many others. Many of the mid-twentieth century composers studied with one of my heroes Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) in Paris. She was an outstanding pedagogue, composer, organist and pianist. Some of my favorite pieces are Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s Overture (c. 1830), Clara Schumann’s Piano Concerto and the operas of Ethel Smyth.
Q. Do you feel vindicated, now that tonal music has been embraced by most of the best-known current American composers? I sometimes joke to people that I was writing tonal music before it was fashionable. Is this your sentiment too?
A. I am delighted to hear the growing trend towards tonal music among contemporary composers! It has seemed that most awards and competition winners are given to more dissonant and atonal music, but the resurgence of tonality is refreshing. I believe that performers and audiences like lyrical and melodic sections that relieve the edginess and nervous tensions of other sections. I like your response that you were writing tonal music before it was fashionable, and I feel the same way. I have tried to write pieces that were closer to the “beep and squawk” style, but they never came to fruition. I guess it’s difficult to write against your own type and style.
Q. You would seem to be a soul sister to your predecessor American composers, women such as Amy Beach, Peggy Stuart Coolidge and the English-born Rebecca Clarke. Have these women influenced you, and are there others?
A. Yes, they are all wonderful composers! I mentioned earlier Mary Howe, Thea Musgrave and Ethel Smyth. There are other terrific contemporary composers from the late 20th and early 21st centuries such as Emma Lou Diemer, Beth Anderson, Joan Tower, Libby Larsen, Cindy McTee, Judith Statin, Shulamit Ran, Melinda Wagner, Jennifer Hidgon and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, the first woman Pulitzer Prize winner in 1983. I am especially drawn to the works of Grace Williams and the string quartets of Elizabeth Maconchy, as well as the music of her daughter, Nicola Le Fanu. And who can forget the music of the French composer Germaine Tailleferre? These are just a few composers whose aesthetic ideals we all share, and there are many more women creators writing stunning and exciting music, and I wish I had space to list them all!
Q. In your interview with Robert Schulslaper, you state that you knew you wanted to be a musician from the age of five. How is it that you came to have such a conviction at such a tender age? Did you grow up in a musical family in which you had a lot of exposure to classical music?
A. Like Amy Beach, my mother was my first piano teacher. She and her two sisters had a vocal trio and sang at church services, weddings, and funerals. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania, and my paternal grandparents had an inn that was one of the north-south horse and buggy stops through central Pennsylvania. I would play the harmonium for church services in the inn’s saloon (not an active saloon, because the county was dry) when it was too cold to go to the little church down the road. In the fall, the inn boarded hunters from all over the area, and I would play the pump organ for them. I played my first church service when I was nine years old. The nearest town and little grocery store was eight miles away. When I needed another piano teacher, my parents would drive an hour each way to take me to lessons every Saturday. I owe my parents so much for their support and love, and they never complained about the sacrifices they made for my musical education. Our family was always pleased and proud to claim Otto Harbach as one of our distant relatives.
Q. What gave you the idea for your Night Soundings?
A. As all nocturnal creatures, I have a tendency to wander about during the night, embracing and relishing in its mysteriousness, unexplained sounds, and thick aura of darkness. As a pianist I was drawn to compositions with the titles of Nocturne and Notturno – from Maria Szymanowska’s Nocturne in B-flat to John Field and Frederic Chopin’s Nocturnes, not to forget the nocturnes of Carl Czerny, Faure, Debussy, Satie and Poulenc. The night offers a myriad array of emotions from solace to absolute horror. I tried to infuse some of these terrifying thoughts, as well as solace that only night can bring into Night Soundings.
Q. The symphonic works I've encountered by you to this point have been smaller-scale works, at least in terms of length. Have you written larger-scale symphonic works?
A. I have written six symphonies, and as you noted, they are smaller-scale works. I seem to emit my themes, work them out, combine and intertwine them, and then come to a close. I usually feel that there are no superfluous extras, but probably most composers feel that way about their works. I have written large-scale pieces such as O Pioneers! – an American Opera and Booth! – an American musical. Booth! won a competition and was presented at Skirball Theatre in New York City for a short run Off-Broadway in 2009. Booth! is about a strong man, Edwin Booth, the brother of John Wilkes Booth. The story is about what happens to a family when one of the members commits a horrific deed. That same year in 2009, O Pioneers!, based on Willa Cather’s novel of the same name, was premiered at the Touhill Performing Arts Center in St. Louis.
Q. How was it that the present CD came to be conducted by David Angus? Did you have a connection with him beforehand? He seems most sympathetic to your work.
A. David Angus is a consummate musician and conductor! I knew of his recordings and liked his style, and also was intrigued that he is the Music Director of the Boston Lyric Opera and has a true empathy for the voice. I knew he would do well interpreting my pieces since many of them are vocal and lyric in style. In 2011 I went to London to hear him record the London Philharmonic Orchestra in several of my string orchestra pieces. I was thrilled with his conducting and interpretations. Then when I had my latest four symphonies ready to go in 2014, he was the natural choice.
Q. The present CD features two works, A State Divided - A Missouri Symphony and Gateway Festival Symphony, with connections with your adopted state. Given the symbolism of the St. Louis arch as gateway to the West, do you see these works in any similar light?
A. For some reason I seem to absorb the landscape and cultures where I am planted. A State Divided was inspired by the 150th anniversary of Missouri’s entry into the Civil War. Gateway Festival Symphony was for the 50th anniversary of the Gateway Festival Orchestra in St. Louis, and Jubilee Symphony was the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. In Pullman, Washington, I loved the Palouse region, and its mesas and rugged terrain. I wrote Frontier Fancies for violin and orchestra with an Americana flavor in its three movements, "Fiddleflirt," "Twilight Dream," and "Dancedevil." Pioneer Women: From Skagway to White Mountain for soprano, clarinet, and piano was about four women who helped settle Alaska, and Daystream Dances for oboe and piano showcased the hot summer air. St. Louis has been an inspiration in many genres for me: the three symphonies that are mentioned above, Freeing the Caged Bird for woodwind quintet inspired by the lives of four St. Louis women (Maya Angelou, Sara Teasdale, Kate Chopin, and Emily Hahn), Freedom Suite for string orchestra inspired by Harriet and Dred Scott, Lilia’s Polka for string orchestra based on a polka written by Kate Chopin, Carondelet Caprice for chamber ensemble, Harriet’s Story for soprano, violin, and piano, Sounds of St. Louis for low brass, as well as many pieces not directly related to the St. Louis environs.
Q. Ironically, Maya Angelou passed on just about the time I received your answers. Your music sounds unambiguously optimistic to me. Are you, indeed, an optimist?
A. As all creative people, we have our optimistic side and a darker side. Yes, I would say that I am more optimistic than not. I have written some very lush pieces when I was at low ebb, and some highly energized pieces when carrying a great sadness. It seems that I am getting more optimistic as I get older – life is a lot of fun!
Q. In a previous interview, you stated that you admire "strong women." What in your judgment makes for such a woman?
A. In spite of all the cultural restrictions, in spite of marital or political difficulties, a strong woman continues to create and makes the world go round, such as Abigail Adams and Alexandra Bergson (in O Pioneers!), Harriet Scott, and Emily Dickinson all did. History is full of women creators in the arts, many of whom created under oppressive circumstances, including Kassia, Anne Boleyn, Fanny Mendelssohn, the contemporary Chen Yi, and various Soviet and Ukrainian composers.
Q. At the risk of being provocative, may I ask if there is still any place in America for strong men?
A. Absolutely yes! Men have been in the forefront of music for centuries, and they have written glorious music, loved and appreciated by many. In some ways, men are still in the forefront. There is a lot of room for composers of all types of music by both men and women, nowadays. In some ways, it is difficult for contemporary composers to find an audience. Both men and women would love a culture that embraced and hungered for new music, as they did in the Classical period. I tell my students that they should just keep writing, write what pleases you, and don’t worry about what people or critics may think about your music.
Q. That is certainly an approach I agree with. Now that so many women composers have achieved international renown, are we past the point of needing to identify or associate composers by gender? It seems to me that the days of discrimination against the music of gifted women are mercifully behind us.
A. Thankfully, it is getting better for women composers. We now have five women Pulitzer Prize winners in music since 1983: Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Shulamit Ran, Melinda Wagner, Jennifer Higdon, and Caroline Shaw. When Marin Alsop was asked what it felt like to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, she said, “I am exceedingly proud to be 'the first' but I am also a bit shocked that there can still be firsts for women in 2013!” Is there a gender gap in the music industry? It is true that there are more professional male music creators than female. For some reason, it’s taking a lot longer in music than in literature and the visual arts to reach equilibrium. It was almost acceptable by the 19th century for female writers to be published, yet it’s only in the last couple of decades, since about 1980, that historical female composers have really emerged. Just a few other statistics: as of 2014, the Metropolitan Opera in New York City has never performed a work by an American woman composer; only five percent of paintings hung in museums are by women artists; and about one percent of pieces played by orchestras in the US are by women, according to the League of American Orchestras. Yes, it is getting better, but we’re still working on parity. Perhaps until that time, there is a need to focus on “women composers,” competitions for women composers, and conferences that highlight the creativity of women. Or as Nadia Boulanger said, “I've been a woman for a little over 50 years and have gotten over my initial astonishment. As for conducting an orchestra, that’s a job where I don’t think sex plays much part.” Nadia Boulanger was the first woman to conduct many major orchestras in America and Europe, including the BBC Symphony, Boston Symphony, Hallé Orchestra, New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Q. What are your latest compositional projects?
A. Right now I seem to be in a vocal phase, and have just finished three Dorothy Parker poems for soprano, violin and piano. The poems reflect Dorothy’s wry humor and keen observation of urban life. Now I am working on five songs of children’s poetry from the Theresienstadt concentration camp, the poetry of which is surprisingly uplifting and beautiful. By July I will begin another silent movie score and then some more orchestral pieces.
Q. You clearly have your projects lined up well in advance! Is there any genre that you haven't yet written in that you hope to someday?
A. I would love to do another opera, but finding the right libretto will be the key. I have also written several musicals other than Booth!, and would love the opportunity to orchestrate them for the stage.
Q. Now that your compositional career is flourishing, do you still have as much time to perform as you did earlier in your career?
A. The first part of my career was indeed as a performer and recording artist, and I am still keenly involved with both. While rummaging around in the British Library, I found many delightful and interesting compositions by 18th-century men and women composers. MSR Classics recently released Thomas Haigh's, Six Concertos for Harpsichord, Op. 1, which are great fun to play. Another 2-CD set by MSR contains Bach's: Art of the Fugue and Pachelbel's Canon, Chaconnes, and Chorale Preludes. Over my career I have logged many hours on the organ bench playing the works of great Baroque composers such as Bach and Pachelbel. It is a great tribute to their music that it still speaks eloquently to us. I am also looking forward to release later this year of the integral 120 harpsichord sonatas by Antonio Soler in the Rubio edition, a 14-CD set.
Fanfare Magazine September/October 2014
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.