Monday 28 April 2014

Beautifully crafted works for string orchestra by Barbara Harbach on a release from MSR Records

A disc that has recently come my way is of Music for Strings by Barbara Harbach featuring the London Philharmonic Orchestra  conducted by David Angus  from MSR Classics

MS 1258

MSR Records have already issued a number of recordings of Harbach’s music covering orchestral works, chamber works, organ music and vocal music. This current release is volume 7 in this series.

Barbara Harbach, professor of music at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has a large catalogue of works, including symphonies, operas, works for string orchestra, musicals, works for chamber ensembles, film scores, modern ballets, pieces for organ, harpsichord and piano, choral anthems and many arrangements for brass and organ of various Baroque works. She is also involved in the research, editing, publication and recording of manuscripts of eighteenth-century keyboard composers, as well as historical and contemporary women composers.

In June, 2009, her musical, Booth! was premiered at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts in New York City where it won a competition at the Tisch School of the Arts. O Pioneers! – An American Opera was premiered, in October, 2009, at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in the Touhill Performing Arts Center.

Harbach has toured extensively as both concert organist and harpsichordist throughout the United States and Canada, and overseas in Bosnia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Korea, Romania, Serbia and Russian Siberia.

Harbach holds academic degrees from Pennsylvania State University (B.A.), Yale University (M.M.A.), Musikhochschule (Konzertdiplom) in Frankfurt, Germany, and the Eastman School of Music (D.M.A.). In 2002, she received an honorary doctorate in music, Honoris Causa, from Wilmington College, Ohio for her lifetime achievement as a composer, performer, editor and publisher.

Barbara Harbach initiated Women in the Arts-St. Louis, a celebration of the achievements of women creators for which she was the recipient of the Arts Education Award from the Missouri Arts Council, the Missouri Citizen for the Arts Award, the Yellow Rose Award from the Zonta International Club of St. Louis and the University of Missouri-St. Louis, College of Fine Arts and Communication, Faculty Excellence Award. In 2007 she was awarded the Hellenic Spirit Foundation Award and, in 2011, she was awarded the Grand Center Visionary Award for ‘Successful Working Artist,’ the Argus Foundation Award, and the YWCA Leader of Distinction Award in the Arts.

The first work on this disc is Harbach’s three movement Sinfonietta (2010). The strings descend from heights in the opening of Hommage, a movement dedicated to all lost love and loved ones. This is a melody that has depth and sadness, with some rich sonorities in the basses as the music swirls forward with lovely string sounds. The music quietens to a hush before gently moving on to a rhythmic section pointed up by pizzicato violins before opening out in the flowing melody of the opening. Harbach certainly knows how to use strings to great effect.

Jeu Jeu takes a theme from Harbach’s opera O Pioneers and is a lively, rhythmically buoyant movement that has a fine transparency with, again, the basses pointing up the music.  Soon there is section that recalls the melancholy thoughtfulness of the opening movement before the music returns to the rhythmic nature of the opening. Pastiche opens with a fresh, joyous, syncopated theme that eventually bounces forward full of life.

This is a terrific piece that should take its place alongside some of the great works for string orchestra from the past.

In Memoriam: Turn Round, O My Soul (2010) is a eulogy and elegy for All Souls Day opening on the lower strings before the rest of the orchestra join in this lovely, flowing theme, full of deep feeling. Harbach keeps the music moving, as though not wishing to dwell too long on such painful memories. The music rises to a central passionate climax only to end gently.

Freedom Suite (2010) is inspired by the life of Harriet and Dred Scott, slaves who sued for their freedom in 1847. It is also in three movements with the first, Harriet Scott – A Strong Woman opening with rustic dance rhythms. Although this theme is based on a spiritual, the strings do hint at a repeated ‘ho down’ tune but with much subtlety in this attractive section. Another spiritual arrives in the slow section, a more nostalgic passage with a melody for the cellos. The dance rhythms return leading to the coda where the two themes are overlaid.

Eliza and Lizzie – Let My People Go has a magnificent opening high in the strings before a flowing melody, punctuated by a bass pulse arrives. This leads to another hushed section before another fine melody with individual instruments weaving throughout the string orchestra. Another hushed section appears before the main melody joins, bringing a strong sense of yearning.

The music rapidly rises up to open Freedom – At Last before a fugal section arrives with some terrific writing for strings where, underneath, the melody of another spiritual can be heard. A timeless sounding slower theme arrives but soon the theme of the opening returns for the coda.

This is another terrific piece so well crafted.

Two Songs from the Sacred Harp (2010) has two movements, The Morning Trumpet where the orchestra announces the theme before it is taken into a more flowing version decorated by a solo viola, then violin before being subjected to a fugue and Chester where swirling strings lead to a theme that enters low in the strings. The upper strings continue to swirl over the bass theme before the various sections of the string orchestra each enter, with the theme, in another fugue. The movement concludes with the return of the opening.

The three movement Demarest Suite (2009/10) was commissioned by the Northern Valley Regional High Scholl in Demarest, New Jersey. The suite opens with Echoes of Our Youth with a rhythmic pulse in the lower strings before the rest of the orchestra enter, flowing forward in a fine melody. Soon a less confident variation intrudes before returning to the opening theme, though still subjected to hesitant moments as well as confidence swirling sections before leading to a confident coda.

With Remember the Ladies Tango a moderately paced tango rhythm soon becomes more flowing, though with the rhythmic pulse remaining. There is often a slight Mediterranean flavour to this music.

Joyous Day places a string quintet within the double string orchestra. This movement sparkles right from the opening with a dance rhythm that allows the music to move forward.

An upward rising motif opens Nights in Timisoara (2010) with the orchestra soaring before settling to a quieter, slower moving melody, full of feeling. Soon a dance rhythm appears with pizzicato violins in a tango rhythm around which the orchestra moves. The music slowly builds before falling to allow another dance rhythm that is played in fugue. The opening rising motifs return to lead quickly to the conclusion on a pizzicato note.

Lilia Polka (2009) is great fun in this arrangement of a Polka by Kate Chopin (1850-1904) so deftly arranged by Barbara Harbach.

David Angus and the strings of the London Philharmonic Orchestra give terrific performances of these works. Barbara Harbach is revealed here as a fine composer whose beautifully crafted works will give endless enjoyment.

The recording, from the Henry Wood Hall, London is first rate and there are excellent booklet notes. 

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