Harbison is one of America's leading
composers. His range is wide, for he
has written for every conceivable type
of concert performance, ranging from
the grandest to the most intimate. His
music embraces jazz along with the pre-classical
forms. It is at once deeply serious
and approachable. Among his three operas,
The Great Gatsby (to his own
libretto) was commissioned by The Metropolitan
Opera and premiered to great acclaim
in December 1999.
Psalms, the larger of the two works
on this CD, was commissioned in 1999
by the Israeli Consulate of Chicago
in order to celebrate the 50th anniversary
of the founding of the State of Israel.
A Hebrew prayer of hope from the 5th
century is combined with various Psalm
settings, all performed in Hebrew. In
addition there are sections of recitative
that are delivered in English, which
to this listener are less successful
since the words can seem banal. The
general tone is one of optimism, and
not a parochial optimism. For in preparing
for the commission, Harbison travelled
to the Middle East and conferred with
Arabs as well as Israelis. Thus the
direction of the piece is towards reconciliation,
a message that remains as important
today as it was then.
the whole there is a compelling atmosphere,
with a particularly interesting combination
of voices and orchestra, the latter
handled with imagination and always
featuring a sure instrumental technique.
Thus the early stages of the work set
both the standard and the tone. The
performance generates great commitment,
as the music would demand, and the soprano,
Majie Zeller, gives a particularly rewarding
rendition of her demanding role.
other work on display is Emerson,
an a cappella piece for double
choir. This was a 1995 commission for
the centenary of the Wisconsin-Madison
School of Music. The text uses prose
rather than verse, and was taken from
the philosophical writings of Emerson.
This inevitably created challenges for
the composer, because of the lack of
a regular rhythmic thrust as found in
verse. His response proves to be a veritable
triumph of imaginative resourcefulness,
a score full of subtleties which reward
the performers and the listener alike.
recorded sound for both the Four
Psalms and Emerson is most
sensitively balanced, with a pleasing
sense of space and a warm acoustic too.
There is high praise too for the accompanying
documentation. Full texts and translations
are included as appropriate, while the
layout features a particularly clear
and imaginative design that puts so
many other CD booklets to shame.