Composer gives BSO a brand-new symphony for its 75th birthday


You can tell a lot about an orchestra by the company it keeps.

When the Boston Symphony Orchestra celebrated its 100th anniversary, it commissioned a symphony from composer John Harbison. Five years later, when the San Francisco Symphony celebrated its 75th year, it also commissioned a symphony from Harbison.

Now it is Baltimore's turn.

Tonight and tomorrow in Meyerhoff Hall, and Monday in New York's Carnegie Hall, the BSO will celebrate its 75th year with the world premiere performances of Harbison's Symphony No. 3, which it commissioned three years ago from the composer.

"This is a wonderful orchestra -- it starts where a lot of others leave off," the 52-year-old composer --winner of a Pulitzer Prize, a Fried- heim Award and a MacArthur Fellowship -- was saying yesterday in a Meyerhoff Hall office. Harbison reminded a listener that he was speaking from experience, recalling that his two previous symphonies and other works of his had been performed by the BSO.

"Any composer coming in here with a new piece knows his music will take off successfully from the runway. The only orchestra I know of where a composer can feel that way is with Simon Rattle's City of Birmingham [England] Symphony."

Although Harbison calls the new work a symphony, BSO music director David Zinman says it might be more appropriate to call it "five moods" -- after the five movements that make up its structure.

"For me the piece is about the composer's dilemma -- how does one create a work of art?" Zinman says.

"The first [movement] is about disgust and irritation; the second is about nostalgia, when the composer was younger and when he found it easier to write; the third is an angry, militant scherzo that's sort of like Beethoven's 'Grosse Fugue'; the fourth is about withdrawal and the attempt to achieve transcendence; and the fifth is more purely exuberant, but it is an ending that is more realistic than optimistic -- and even a little nihilistic."

Harbison smiles when he hears Zinman's scenario.

"David has a real line on this music and understands what's going on," the composer says. "The reason

I think of it as a symphony is that each movement takes the previous one as its springboard."

But what about Zinman's implication that the end of the symphony is dark?

Harbison smiles again.

"Yes, there is something at the end of the piece that contains a residue that is disagreeable," Harbison says.

"In the last movement I was thinking of William Blake's proverb, 'Damn braces, bliss relaxes' -- and particularly the first half of it. I find that there's something bracing about a day in which there's some wind."

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