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About the composers

Triple Anniversary Concert: Wednesday, November 28, 2018  8pm


An Appreciation of John Harbison by David Hoose

John Harbison, who celebrates his 80th birthday on December 20 of this year, has played an essential role in the cultural life of Boston for more than five decades. Most listeners have heard his music, since virtually every significant Boston ensemble— large or small, prestigious or modest—has performed compositions of his, some organizations with great regularity. In particular, those ensembles that have commissioned John to compose new works for them have especially strengthened our connection to his music. 

John has touched the Boston musical community in myriad ways: as a probing conductor (former Cantata Singers music director, now Emmanuel Music principal guest conductor, and guest conductor with several contemporary music groups), as music professor at MIT who exposes bright minds to the marvels of classical music, and—perhaps most importantly—as an engaged concert-goer. Few listeners possess John’s breadth and depth of listening experience. Few active composers allow as much openness to as wide a variety of music, from old to new, light to serious, or jazz to classical, for they can find themselves admitting a narrow range of music, perhaps as a way of developing and securing their own creative voices. But John’s appreciation for a huge span of music, new and old, extends generously, and even that which may not appeal to his own musical thinking always receives thoughtful observation and respect. 

For me, as someone who has studied, rehearsed, and performed at least twenty- five Harbison choral, orchestral, and chamber works, it is his music that continually and repeatedly gives immense satisfaction. His musical voice is uniquely his and, at the same time, reflects a penetrating understanding of the greatest traditions in classical music—particularly those of Bach and Schütz—as well as those in the seminal worlds of jazz. His language constantly evolves to meet the needs of the particular project at hand, but it remains rooted in musical values that I deeply admire: compelling harmonic motion, closely heard contrapuntal relationships, vital rhythmic life, fascination with the syntax and meaning of texts, and interest in the infinite capacity, both complex and straightforward, of music to breathe in phrases. 

In every compositionof John’s that I know, from the jazz-infused 1979 Wind Quintet (which the Emmanuel Wind Quintet, of which I was a member, performed about forty times times without our interest in it ever fading), to the rigorously conceived Emerson, for unaccompanied chorus, it is easy to see—and hear—his fascination with, and commitment to, the same qualities that he admires in Bach. In his recent book of essays, “What Do We Make of Bach,” John speaks of Bach’s “great synthesis of strict and free elements—law and fantasy—given and divined.” John’s music, too, is inventively systematic, its rigor shot with flexible imagination. The layers of relationships and powerful emotions that arise from such sophisticated thought, always heard and always hearable, bring me back again and again.

Thea Musgrave: Scottish composer awarded with Queen's Medal for Music

Scottish composer Thea Musgrave has been awarded the Queen’s Medal for Music 2017 by the Queen. 

The 90-year-old received her award at Buckingham Palace during an audience with the head of state.

Ms Musgrave said: “Although much of my career has been on an international stage, this Medal represents my British heritage. It also recognises the impact my Scottish roots has had on my music – which continue to this day to inform and nourish my work and to anchor my role in the world.”

The award, established in 2005, is presented annually to an outstanding individual or group of musicians who have had a major influence on the musical life of the nation. The composer is the 13th recipient of the award, and follows violinist Nicola Benedetti, who received the 2016 honour.

Judith Weir, Master of The Queen’s Music, who chaired a committee which oversaw the award’s nomination process, said: “Scottish-born composer Thea Musgrave has been a musical pioneer for many decades. With innovative use of space, sound and colour, her work has made rich contributions to numerous genres, including opera and orchestral music. Now aged 90 and resident in New York, she is still energetically at work, a warm-spirited, optimistic inspiration to her many listeners, performers and colleagues around the world.”

The Daily

Link to article

At 80, Joan Tower Says Great Music Comes ‘in the Risks’ by William Robin

When the composer Joan Tower went to Bennington College to study music, her teachers told her she needed to compose something.

“So I wrote a piece,” she recalled recently, laughing, “and it was a disaster from beginning to end. I said, ‘I know I can do better than that.’ So I did that for the next 40 years, trying to create a piece that wasn’t a disaster.”

Over the decades-long process of trying to avoid disaster — composition was, she said, “a very, very slow-moving juggernaut”—she became a force in contemporary music. She turned 80 in September, a birthday which will be celebrated on Sunday at National Sawdust in Brooklyn.

When she was young, Ms. Tower composed austere, pointillist music in the then-dominant 12-tone style, but soon turned toward a propulsive and visceral language. A gifted pianist, she founded the Da Capo Chamber Players, a pioneering ensemble dedicated to new music. She served as the St. Louis Symphony’s composer in residence in the 1980s, cultivating a taut, crackling orchestral sound, and has taught at Bard College for decades.

Her widest-reaching project, the 2004 symphonic poem “Made in America,” has been performed by more than 65 orchestras in all 50 states. And Ms. Tower has recently been commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for a new work to debut in a future season. She is, in short, of comparable stature to the major octogenarians of her generation, such as Steve Reich, Charles Wuorinen and John Corigliano.

Unlike some of those major octogenarians, however, Ms. Tower is remarkably self-deprecating. In a recent phone conversation from her home in Red Hook, N.Y., she talked about why. Here are edited excerpts.

How does it feel to reach the milestone of 80?

Composing is not an easy activity. For others, it’s easier, but for me it’s a very challenging activity. But as life goes on, the rewards come in. The credentials, like winning certain prizes, are very nice, but the important rewards are that your music gets picked up and played a lot. That’s what makes your life in music, not necessarily where you went to school, who you studied with, or what awards you got.

Could you talk about some of your influences?

[Growing up in South America,] I developed a love for percussion. My babysitter used to take me to these festivals. She would drop me off at the bandstand, so she could go and have fun. The band people would throw me a maraca or some kind of castanet or drum. That was where I started to develop a love of percussion and also dance. My music is basically about rhythm. It’s all about timing for me.

But I also was studying piano at the time. I got very involved with Chopin, Beethoven, all the dead white European composers, who I loved. Beethoven was a huge influence on me, in terms of rhythm, pacing, juggling architectural narrative. Then I married a jazz musician, and I heard all the jazz greats. We went to all the clubs. Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans — all of them I got to hear live. That influence was more harmonic: I learned juicier chord progressions.


You did graduate studies at Columbia University during the heyday of 12-tone music, but shifted toward a more tonal idiom. What prompted the change?

What changed all that was Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.” I had never heard anything like this. It was colorful, it was direct, it was very slow at points. Oh my God, there was so much in that music that I was just blown away by. It came out of the sky. And then George Crumb’s “Voice of the Whale.” I was like, “Whoa, this is so consonant, and so beautiful, and so colorful.” So I started to pull away from the 12-tone group, and I started to develop my own voice.

As you developed this new language, you also starting writing orchestral music, with “Sequoia”
in 1981.

The American Composers Orchestra was commissioning new works, and they asked me, and I said no, because I wasn’t ready. Francis Thorne, the lead energy behind that group, said, “You are ready, and I’m going to ask you again.” I wrote the piece kicking and screaming, and close to being tortured. [The conductor Leonard] Slatkin heard this piece and he loved it, and said, “I want you to be composer in residence with St. Louis.” I said, “No, I’m not ready for this. I only have one piece.”

What was it that made you feel that you weren’t ready?

I’ve always had a low opinion of myself. I think it’s a female thing, in a way. For women, in a field like composition, which has been male dominated for years and years and years, it’s a hard thing to walk into and feel that you are as empowered as your male colleagues are. That’s a very superficial answer to the question.

But that’s how you felt?

I did, and that continued for a long time. Until the last few years, actually.

What changed? 

I got older [laughs]. And I got more confident, and more accepting of who I am, and what I can do.

And you became more conscious of how women have been underrepresented in composition.

The knowledge of this history started to build my confidence more and more, because I started to see what was going on. I started to see the rarity of women. All of the sudden, my eyes started opening to: “Are there any women on this recording? Are there any women on this panel?” I started to become more and more aware of the paucity of women in the infrastructure. I started taking stands and becoming an advocate.

And you became more conscious of how women have been underrepresented in composition.

The knowledge of this history started to build my confidence more and more, because I started to see what was going on. I started to see the rarity of women. All of the sudden, my eyes started opening to: “Are there any women on this recording? Are there any women on this panel?” I started to become more and more aware of the paucity of women in the infrastructure. I started taking stands and becoming an advocate.

How has your style has changed in recent years?

I’m not sure one has much control over that. My goal is to keep learning. There’s so much still to learn — the bass, the piccolo, I’m still working on, and the horn. Those are weak areas for me. I’m going to get there with those instruments at some point.

What you try to do is write the best piece you can at whatever level of experience and voice that you are at. I know that if I take more risks, I’ll get there. It’s in the risks.

The New York Times, Nov. 9, 2018

Link to entire article article with sound samples

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