Harbison's symphony deserves a life after premiere


WORLD PREMIERES OF classical music often are also world final performances. There's no shortage of new music. It's the second or third playings that sometimes never happen. After the initial burst of foam, the music disappears like whitecaps on the ocean.

Maybe the music's not so good, sours easily, has no orchestral or financial patrons or just that newer works are always emerging from the creative pipeline. John Harbison's vivid Symphony No. 3, commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for its 75th birthday year, got a spirited premiere hearing last night at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall and deserves more than a maiden voyage.

But while played exuberantly by the BSO under David Zinman, the 20-minute work was patchy. It opened strongly with a recurring trio of notes, closed dramatically in rousing fashion led by the strings and had fine internal percussion fun and a jazz-tinted passage.

But it also had vague mini-thoughts that stopped in mid-sentence, were replaced by other musical snippets and a few bars later picked up elsewhere. Rather than outer-directed and moving, the music then was simply self-absorbed or self-indulgent and rather glum at that.

Harbison, 52, is an imaginative MIT-based composer whose first two symphonies for Boston and San Francisco were played by the BSO in 1988 and 1989. He composes in isolation on a farm in southern Wisconsin. At times last night Symphony No. 3 sounded like he had moved to a mid-town Manhattan sidewalk, and some of those sections were stirring.

Richard Goode, the Teddy bear of a pianist who delighted BSO audiences with his Beethoven concerto series a few summers ago, has longer and whiter hair now (generally add 10 years to program publicity shots). His playing last night contained some graceful phrasing and workmanlike scale work.

Yet overall Goode and the BSO presented a bland and unmemorable reading of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 14 (1784) between Harbison and the evening's climax, Stravinsky's "Petrouchka" Ballet in Four Scenes (1911).

The Stravinsky standard, played in just over 30 minutes last night, was an exciting cornucopia of vibrant solo performances, led by pianist Jeffrey Chapell. Single sets by BSO principals for flute, oboe, cornet, percussion, celeste and other instruments helped Zinman fashion a colorful second half closer in the intensely Russian piece about a ballerina in 1830's St. Petersburg.

Former composer-in-residence Christopher Rouse contributed a zippy musical greeting card for the BSO's 75th. Remaining composers of these 1-2 minute faxes are Stephen Albert, Adolphus Hailstork, Steven Stucky and Jonathan Jensen. The program will be repeated at 8:15 tonight.

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