New Harbison symphony is well worth hearing


David Zinman's tenure as music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra may be remembered for giving birth to some important pieces of American music. One of the best of them may be John Harbison's Symphony No. 3, which was commissioned for the BSO's 75th season and which received its premiere last night in Meyerhoff Hall.

The symphony -- it runs a little more than 20 minutes, and its five movements are played without pause -- doesn't contain anything that cries out to be remembered.

But it is beautifully put together and explores a broad spectrum of emotions. (The movements are marked "disconsolate," "nostalgic," "militant," "passionate" and "exuberant.")

Harbison grew up playing popular music, and it shows in this piece. Although the Symphony No. 3 does not use jazz idioms, it does employ what sound like jazz techniques -- particularly in the scorching licks for brass and percussion in the third movement and the muted brass and scurrying strings in the final one.

The angry grotesqueries of the third movement, by the way, contain more than a few admiring nods in the direction of Christopher Rouse, the BSO's former composer-in-residence, to whom Harbison's new symphony is dedicated.

The performance was basically good, although there were a few ensemble problems -- most glaringly in the final measures when the piece became unglued. But this was an ambitious and difficult program that contained one of the most difficult of the Mozart piano concertos (K. 449 in E-flat) and Stravinsky's "Petrouchka," which did not make it into the standard repertory because it is easy to play.

The concerto featured Richard Goode, who was not quite as deft on this occasion as he is wont to be and who received an accompaniment from Zinman and the orchestra that was not up to their usual high standard.

The program will be repeated tonight at Meyerhoff and Monday night at Carnegie Hall in New York.

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