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CLASSICAL REVIEW

BSO Offers Premiere

Of Harbison ‘Requiem’

By Bogdan Fedeles

staff writer

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Bernard Haitink, conductor

Symphony Hall

March 6-8, 8 p.m.

Last week’s series of concerts at the BSO featured the long-awaited premiere of Institute Professor John H. Harbison’s Requiem. The well-received performance, full of intensity, represents the latest in a series of achievements for Harbison, one of the world’s eminent living composers.

History is full of requiems, many of them -- including Mozart’s, Verdi’s, Berlioz’s -- remarkable not only in the musical sense but in their deeper message.

Harbison’s Requiem, the first major requiem of the 21st century, is a natural continuation of the tradition that flourished in the past few centuries. Not only is the harmonic language different, but strikingly, the message of the text acquires a slightly different meaning in this latest requiem. Back in the days of Mozart, the eternal rest is pursued with pious distance and dignity. Harbison shows us a different facet of human emotion when facing divinity; his prayer is full of desperation, a hopeless and perpetual struggle to regain a certain relationship with God that seems lost long time ago. The immediate relevance of this struggle to our present is amazing and represents a remarkable attribute of the piece.

Musically, Harbison’s Requiem is an enchanting experience, marking a refined, classicist’s taste for tradition, wit and surprise. The orchestra required is not Mahlerian, yet still complicated, with the countless percussion instruments dominating in effects and numbers. As expected, the chorus and soloists are given the principal role in delivering the text, yet the orchestral transitions and interludes are a key element in setting up the right mood for each part of the piece.

The piece closely follows the traditional setting of the text, utilizing fugues and counterpoint in all the established lines and verses. Even the distribution of the text between chorus and soloists is fairly traditional. Despite that, the piece is full of surprises that come from the musical interpretation of the words. All the imperatives are generally treated as very loud, forceful tuttis.

In the introit, “exaudi orationem meam” (hear my prayer) sounds loud and desperate. Likewise, “salva me, fons pietatis” (save me, fountain of mercy) is repeated in a manner that denotes hopelessness. Notable effects are achieved by the tasteful use of brass. The “dies irae, dies illa” passage is dominated by two chromatic scales in the trumpets.

“Tuba mirum spargens sonum” is not a victory trumpet call but rather a lamenting, jazzy trumpet and trombone duet, with mutes and bendings that frighten and confuse. A marvelous treatment of “mors stupebit et natura” (death and nature are stunned) features a ritardando in a syncopated melodic line on top of a scarce accompaniment.

All the fugues in the piece show Harbison’s predilection for chromatic scales, aiming perhaps to the idea of restlessness and desperation. There is no center of gravity; the melody is mostly free floating. The “kyrie eleison” (lord have mercy) and the “quam olim Abrahae” (which you promised to Abraham) are excellent examples, the first for the chorus and the second for the soloists.

Other special effects are achieved using the ultra-wide range of percussion. “Lux perpetua luceat eis” (the perpetual light will shine upon them) sounds very transparent and bright, by use of bells, triangles, vibraphone and harp. Likewise, the ending section of the piece, “In paradisum” (in paradise) achieves ethereal qualities, concluding the piece in sublimation, by the use of celeste and vibraphone in an intimate collaboration with solo violin and harp.

Harbison’s Requiem received a splendid performance by the BSO, under the direction of Bernard Haitink, the ensemble’s Principal Guest Conductor. The intricacies of this new piece have been addressed with care, and the balance and overall dynamics have been worked out very well, delivering a noteworthy premiere of a remarkable Requiem worthy of its predecessors.

The other piece in the program, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, received a pleasant performance, although it was not as refined as it could have been. Excellent dynamics and articulation through the fast movements were delightful, yet a too fast slow movement, with slight inconsistencies in the winds and brass sections, contributed to an overall good-but-not-great feeling.

Though the series of concerts in Boston has finished its run, the BSO will travel to New York to deliver another performance of the Harbison Requiem tomorrow night at Carnegie Hall.