Barbara Harbach – Portraits in Sound

This volume brings listeners up to date with Barbara Harbach’s symphonic output. It features symphonies No. 7-10, composed between 2014 and 2015.

Harbach is an economical symphonist — the works are uniformly short, focused, and efficiently orchestrated. All four symphonies follow a straight-forward 3-movement fast-slow-fast structure. Yet with all these constraints, Harbach shows a great deal of imagination and variety.

Symphony No. 7, “O, Pioneer” uses music from her opera of the same name. Harbach manages to evoke the great expanse of the Nebraska prairie without for a moment sounding like Aaron Copland. No mean feat.

I have to admit I didn’t enjoy Symphony No. 8 “The Scarlet Letter” as much as the others. The three movements are character studies of Hester Prynne, Roger Chillingworth, and Arthur Dimmesdale. To my ears, only the middle movement, Chillngsorth captured the emotional turmoil of the character. The outer movements, though pleasant, weren’t as engaging.

Symphony No. 9, “Celestial Symphony” also repurposes music from another source. This time, Harbach’s score to the silent film  “The Birth Life, and Death of Christ” (which I reviewed in its original form). The movie is a series of tableaux, and the original score for 13 instruments had a static quality to it.

Recast in symphonic form, Harbach explores and more thoroughly develops her material. I think it’s a successful reworking. The music sounds more dynamic, and the enhanced instrumental palette allows for more nuanced musical expression.

The final work, “Symphony for Ferguson” fell just short of the mark, I think. Though I would be hard-pressed to suggest a composer who might come closer. Harbach, a member of the University of Missouri-St. Louis faculty was commissioned to write a symphony of healing in the wake of the Ferguson riots. The music needed to speak to all the citizens of the community.

Harbach wove together tunes such as “Wade in the Water,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and ‘Chester,” to suggest that blending of cultures. While skillfully written, to my ears it just sounded like a medley rather than a work of great emotional appeal. Even the final movement, adopting the jazzy “St. Louis Blues,” didn’t quite gel for me.

Overall, though, I enjoyed this release. Barbara Harbach is a composer who follows her own muse, and I continue to admire her originality.

Music of Barbara Harbach, Volume 11 
Orchestral Music III – Portraits in Sound 
Symphonies Nos. 7-10
London Philharmonic Orchestra; David Angus, conductor
MSR Classics

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