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Boston Musicians celebrate John Harbison's birthday



Emmanuel Music,

Conducted by Craig Smith

Rose Mary Harbison, violin solo

Chorus Pro Musica,

Steven Lipsitt, guest chorus master

Harbison's Violin Concerto

Act II from Harbison's Winter's Tale.

Emmanuel Church, April 28.


HARBISON'S VIOLIN CONCERTO is a remarkable work, bursting with energy and imagination, so it was quite appropriate that his virtuoso violinist wife Rose Mary should provide a fiery but also intensely lyrical performance of it in celebration of her husband's 50th birthday.

The concerto might be described as a song in three movements, and Rose Mary Harbison elicited vocal qualities from her violin, drawing contrasted shades of darkness, but singing elatedly as well. It was a display that was inescapably gripping; one which established this as one of the most important concerto compositions of recent years.

The elaborate opening to the third movement was very beautifully played, torment emerging from below the surface to ravishing effect. This is emotionally complex and at times troubling music; yet it emerged with a smile, as if sent by Mozart, transcribed by Mahler, but endowed with the special originality of John Harbison.

Rhythms are at times powerful, and they help propel the concerto forward. They were well developed and displayed during this performance. The music, then, was made to operate on several levels, both physical and spiritual. If rhythm paints pictures of the outer, human world, and lyricism is the vital means of conveying emotion, then the inner structure of the music itself -- its changing dynamics and contrasted colors and tempi -- transmit a message which is profoundly spiritual.

Rose Mary Harbison was clearly at the center of attention, but Craig Smith saw to it that the Emmanuel orchestra was in sympathy with her. This is extraordinary music, and it was breathtakingly performed.

The second act of Harbison's opera Winter's Tale completed the program. This has dark music, and sometimes it seems to get too gloomy. The scoring is nonetheless evocative, with particular attention given to conveying beauty of language. The outstanding performance of the evening came from Jane Bryden as Perdita, whose expressive voice got to the heart of the music's drama. Frank Kelley as Florizel produced many a sweet tone, while James Maddalena provided a probing characterization of the part of Leontes. He was well-paired with Mary Westbrook-Geha as Paulina.

Gloria Raymond provided a delightful, bright, performance of the brief part of Hermione.

The chorus was not in good shape, sounding muddled from its position well behind the orchestra. And, although this was a concert performance and many of the individual singers' accounts were fine, more attention should have been paid to dramatically unifying the performance as a whole. This can be done -- even without a stage and costumes -- if the relationships between vocal parts are better studied and realized.