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Harbison's 'Symphony No. 5' to premiere April 17-18

John Harbison
John Harbison
Photo / Tom Artin

The Boston Symphony Orchestra will present the world premiere of "Symphony No. 5" by MIT composer John Harbison on April 17 and 18 at Symphony Hall. James Levine will conduct.

"Symphony No. 5," commissioned by the Boston Symphony, is Harbison's sixth BSO commission.

Winner of a 1987 Pulitzer Prize and a 1989 MacArthur "genius" Award, Harbison is renowned among critics and colleagues for his resourceful, accessible style as well as his love of the voice as an instrument.

Created for mezzo-soprano, baritone and orchestra, "Symphony No. 5" sets texts from three poems based on the tragic tale of Orpheus, a brilliant musician who tries to rescue his lover, Eurydice, from the Underworld.

"The dominant theme of the narrative is how a survivor of trying and arduous events can live and find pleasure in the world," said Harbison, an Institute Professor.

Harbison says he knew the work's musical theme--the symphony's "spine"--early in his composing process. But the fullest expressive journey required both deepening and lightening the tale of two lovers' grief, so Harbison used three different texts in the symphony's final version.

This weekend's BSO audiences will hear Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz' poem, "Orpheus and Eurydice," setting the symphony's dark opening mood, with Orpheus bereft in life. Louise Gluck's poem, "Relic," shifts the focus to Eurydice, providing a woman's voice and a boost out of the abyss. Rainer Maria Rilke's "Sonnet to Orpheus II," will offer an affirming, if ambiguous, close.

The premiere of "Symphony No. 5" concludes a week of musical appearances for Harbison: He conducted Bach's "B Minor Mass" and attended premieres of two of his own compositions, "Cortege" and the chamber version of "Milosz Songs."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 16, 2008 (download PDF).

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