Boston Philharmonic Kicks Off Season With John Harbison’s Evocative Symphony No. 3

Conductor Benjamin Zander leads the Boston Philharmonic in November 2016. (Courtesy Michael J. Lutch/Boston Philharmonic)
Conductor Benjamin Zander leads the Boston Philharmonic in November 2016. (Courtesy Michael J. Lutch/Boston Philharmonic)

Benjamin Zander, the charismatic music director of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, is also a master craftsman of concert programming, and his first concert of the season sounds like one of his most delicious concoctions. Two of the three pieces are by American composers — but written two-thirds of a century apart.

American composer John Harbison. (Courtesy Boston Philharmonic)
American composer John Harbison's Symphony No. 3 is the highlight of the Boston Philharmonic's season opener. (Courtesy Boston Philharmonic)

The concerts (Thursday, Oct. 19; Saturday, Oct. 21; Sunday, Oct. 22) opens with John Harbison’s Third Symphony, from 1990. It's been played in Boston only twice before, in 2003 and again in 2010 by the BSO under James Levine, who is a major Harbison advocate (he has also recordeld this symphony with the Munich Philharmonic). This is followed by George Gershwin’s most popular concert piece, “Rhapsody in Blue,” the single-movement “jazz concerto” that had its legendary world premiere at New York City’s Aeolian Hall in 1924, with Gershwin himself playing the exhilarating piano part under band leader Paul Whiteman, who commissioned the piece.

Zander’s soloist is celebrated Gershwin pianist Kevin Cole, who performed Gershwin’s Concerto in F with the Boston Philharmonic back in 2004.

Here’s a clip of Cole's “Rhapsody in Blue” with the Nashville Symphony:

This Boston Philharmonic program ends with the oldest piece — now more than 100 years old: Igor Stravinsky’s ebullient, colorful and infinitely touching "ballet burlesque" “Petrushka,” first danced in 1911 with Vaslav Nijinsky in the title role of the love-sick carnival puppet. Zander doesn’t do Stravinsky often enough, but his approach to the innovative — and memorably tuneful — 20th-century Russian master has been consistently vital and exciting.

But the biggest news is the Harbison Symphony, and the whole program has really been built around it — and the way it reflects Harbison’s deep love of jazz (e.g., Gershwin) and Stravinsky. Its five movements, in almost shockingly contrasting moods — Sconsolato (disconsolate), Nostalgico, Militante, Appassionato, Esuberante — could have been nicknamed “Five Temperaments” (as if descended from the old idea of the four humors depicted in Paul Hindemith’s masterpiece “Four Temperaments”). Harbison says that playwright John Guare thought that the symphony, with its downward-spiraling sigh or groan, had “an unusual idea — beginning with an ending.” Harbison told me that he thought “a better way to picture it is beginning with a problem to be overcome.”

The “nostalgia” of the pastoral second movement is for the carillon of the St. Ilario church near Genoa, which the composer remembers often walking past — "wondering whether the bells implied transcendence or impermanence" (maybe that’s why the movement markings of this American symphony are in Italian). And those bells, in constantly changing shape and timbre, keep returning — in the form of cowbells, high bell, triangle, chimes, marimba, xylophone and glockenspiel.

In the central scherzo, Harbison compares the percussive eruptions to “a sinister jack-in-the-box, or worse, a Pandora’s box.”

Almost to the end, things remains ambivalent. “I intended for the energy of the final movement to be entirely healthy and positive,” he wrote, “but neither the material nor the character of the piece permitted this.” The energy of the last movement he calls “partly cleansing, partly demonic.” Finally, the symphony reaches what Harbison calls “a very solid affirmative (which helps in its programming with the Gershwin).”

It’s been too long since we’ve had a chance to hear this evocative and compelling piece.

Some further good news from the Boston Philharmonic and the Boston Public Library: They have started a collaboration called "Interpretations of Music: Lessons for Life," in which Zander presents a series of master classes with musicians mostly from the Philharmonic and the Youth Philharmonic orchestras, along with other gifted young instrumentalists. The conductor discusses the music and coaches the players on how to make what they’re playing more expressive and meaningful to the audience. These free events take place at the Central Branch of the BPL and at the Longy School in Cambridge.

Benjamin Zander leads Kevin Cole and the Boston Philharmonic at Jordan Hall and Sanders Theater in Harbison, Gershwin & Stravinsky on Thursday, Oct. 19, Saturday, Oct. 21 and Sunday, Oct. 22.


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Lloyd Schwartz Arts Critic
Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR’s Fresh Air and Somerville's Poet Laureate.



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