Rambling About Tanglewood: Maestro's footsteps and words

Friday August 24, 2012

LENOX -- The challenge was to compose a work that would use Serge Koussevitzky's words and stand shoulder to shoulder with the Beethoven Ninth.

John Harbison started off by setting some of Koussevitzky's more oratorical utterances, but underwent "a discouraging overdose of uplift." Instead, he settled for a six-minute "scherzo" for chorus and orchestra that quotes six of the Tanglewood founder's more off-the-cuff remarks, retaining their off-kilter syntax.

The first citation, for example, is one of Koussevitzky's most quoted remarks: "The next Beethoven will from Colorado come."

"Of course," Harbison said in an interview, "it summarizes his view that American culture was going to be productive."

"Koussevitzky Said," the last in a series of commissions celebrating Tanglewood's 75th anniversary, will receive its world premiere Sunday afternoon in the Boston Symphony Orchestra's final concert of the anniversary season. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus will join the BSO under Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos.

The Beethoven Ninth, which cast a daunting shadow for Harbison as for generations of composers before, will follow.

Sixty-one years after his death, the Russian-born Koussevitzky can seem a distant, Olympian figure to moderns. It was not so during his reign as BSO director, 1924-49.

"Even when he was wrong he could, through his iron will and dynamic force, convince you that he was right," the late violinist Harry Ellis Dickson recalled in his BSO book "Gentlemen, More Dolce Please!" (The title echoes one of Koussevitzky's rehearsal commandments.)

Going further back, an American correspondent from Boston wrote in 1945 in The Gramophone that "Koussevitzky today is more than a conductor; he is a moving force, a power, a teacher, an influence in music.

"His championing and commissioning of new music by contemporary composers of even the most obscure sort and of all nations has advanced the growth of new great music by leaps and bounds. With the Berkshire Institute (the Tanglewood Music Center) and his Berkshire Festivals he has created not merely a Temple of Music but the greatest

centre of living music in America."

Harbison, a much-honored, often-commissioned composer who teaches at MIT during the winter, follows in Koussevitzky's large footsteps. (The composer is from New Jersey -- not quite Koussevitzky's Colorado, but the idea is the same.) He has been around Tanglewood since his student year, 1959. In 1984, he returned for several years as a composer and teacher, finally becoming head of the student composition program in 2005 at the invitation of James Levine.


Now 73, the soft-spoken composer is also prominent in Boston as a conductor, especially of early music. His activities extend to jazz as a pianist, composer and arranger. Among his many awards are a Pulitzer and four honorary doctorates.

The BSO collaboration has led to four previous commissions, including his last two symphonies, the Fifth and Sixth. Their premieres culminated a BSO cycle of all six Harbison symphonies over the last two seasons. The BSO has also made joint commissions, including a cello concerto for Yo-Yo Ma, with other orchestras.

Harbison traces the BSO connection back to the early 1970s, when he and the then concertmaster and assistant conductor, Joseph Silverstein, worked together on non-BSO chamber projects.


In 1975, Silverstein learned that Harbison had written "Diotima," tone poem for orchestra, on a Koussevitzky Foundation commission, with no provision for a performance. Silverstein asked for a score.

"Of course," Harbison recalls, "that was a tough spot to be in for a pretty young composer -- to have written an orchestra piece with no attachment to a performance." Silverstein premiered the work during one of his weeks on the podium.

Over the 28 years Harbison has taught at Tanglewood, he has seen a change in young composers' styles. Where once a kind of homogeneity reigned, especially among university-trained composers, he now finds the range of options, including the influence of pop, "incredibly wide."

He, too, has changed. "Koussevitzky Said" reflects the difference.

"I feel lucky to have spent most of my career essentially discovering what I want to be doing," he says, "and though I tried to do the piece from a different angle, I still feel like I'm not in the state of a 21-year-old composer who is thinking, ‘I could almost be anywhere.'"

He listens to his 1971 opera "Winter's Tale" and thinks: "I would love to have all those notes. I just don't. I'd love to be able to invent those very challenging textures and fill things up that way, but I just absolutely can't do it."


So he especially admires the aging Schütz and Verdi, who he says wrote their greatest works in their last years. For him, the concision of "Falstaff," which Verdi composed in his late 70s, makes it his finest opera, even if audiences prefer "Aida."

Next on the agenda are chamber pieces, including a commission for a string trio. He's going back to a trio he started at 14 or 15 and kept returning to, but every time he got stuck.

"I can't back away anymore," he realized. "It's the same demon" but he's "staring it down."

After four decades away from jazz, he's teaching it at MIT and making it a focus of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, which he and his violinist-wife, Rose Mary, run at this time of year in Wisconsin. It's his "quixotic ambition" to be able to play jazz again as well as he did when he was young.


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