Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Barbara Harbach is again shown to be an impressive composer on a new release from MSR Classics featuring David Angus and the London Philharmonic Orchestra

MSR Classics has just released Volume 9 in its series of recordings of the music of Barbara Harbach . This new release is the second volume of this composer’s Orchestral Music entitled Symphonies, Soundings and Celebrations.

MS 1519
Barbara Harbach 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 has been 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.

Further biographical information on this composer can be found in my review of Volume 7 in this series, Music for Strings  and, indeed, on the composer’s own website

The works on this new CD are all billed as World Premiere Recordings and are again performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by David Angus

Night Soundings for Orchestra was commissioned by Thomas F. George and is in three movements. There is a dynamic opening to Cloak of Darkness but the music soon settles to an oboe led theme. The dynamic outburst re-occurs before the gentler theme is taken forward by various wind instruments. The dynamic outbursts continue to periodically interrupt the music, keeping the tense overtone of this movement.

Woodwind dominate Notturno, weaving a mysterious tapestry of night sounds in this imaginatively orchestrated movement. Part way through, the strings bring a lighter, flowing nature before the woodwind return weaving some beautiful textures leading to the hushed coda.

As the title infers Midnight Tango has a tango rhythm led by a solo trumpet that appears out of the opening. Soon the music flows forward with just a gentle underlying pulse of the tango rhythm. Later a little ensemble of strings appears as the tango picks up with brass bringing a real Latin feel.

This is a most attractive piece idiomatically played by David Angus and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Gateway Festival Symphony was commissioned by St. Louis’ Gateway Festival Orchestra for their 50th Jubilee in 2013.

Confluencity depicts the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers and grows upwards from a small motif to provide a dynamic opening. The xylophone keeps a rhythm over which the orchestra rides, with woodwind arabesques. Soon a more flowing theme arrives with gentle brass overlaid as the two themes merge and overlay as the movement progresses. Eventually a faster rhythm develops as the music bubbles up to a climax before flowing forward and speeding to a decisive coda.

Sunset: St. Louis, inspired by a poem by the St. Louis poet Sara Teasdale, opens quietly, though pensively, before a rhythmic theme commences a tango. The theme is passed around the orchestra before a slowly rising and falling motif appears around which the tango then moves. This is an especially lovely movement, expertly orchestrated.

Solo trumpet announces the opening of After Forever, as the pensive nature becomes even more obvious. This movement is related to the struggle of Dred and Harriet Scott, slaves who unsuccessfully sued for their freedom, an event that deepened tensions between the northern and southern U.S. states. Soon the tension eases, as the music flows and builds in richness. Little surges of drama and passion alternate with the flowing music. Eventually a little rhythmic melody arrives, pointed up by quiet percussion. The trumpet returns to call a note of caution before the music leads to the more settled coda.

This is another approachable and highly attractive work.

A State Divided – A Missouri Symphony also takes the theme of the divided politics of the northern and southern U.S. states with Missouri’s involvement in the Civil War.

Missouri Compromise – a slave state has an expansive opening though with a hint of melancholy that eventually leads to a section with a folksy rhythmic snap. A side drum enters to reinforce the rhythmic elements of the music but the predominant feeling remains expansive and calm. A tune runs through this work that sounds very much like a traditional American song.

Skirmish at Island Mound – African-American regiment brings low strings and a flute to open this quietly pensive music which rises up with a lighter theme shared around the wind instruments. The music slowly builds, rhythmically, between wind instruments in surely another traditional tune. Eventually the music quietens, the flute returns, before the music moves forward with confidence to the coda.

A trumpet and side drum herald the opening of The Battle of Westport – the battle that saved Missouri before a swirling orchestral theme joins, thrusting the music ahead in a marching rhythm around the tune ‘Mourning Glory’. Harbach’s distinctive orchestration brings some terrific moments as this movement progresses. There is a slower central section with side drums before the music leads decisively to the coda.

Jubilee Symphony was commissioned by the University of Missouri-St. Louis for their 50th Jubilee in 2013 and was premiered in October that year.

The first movement, Bellerive takes its title from the historic Bellerive Country Club that became the site of the new university. The music springs into life as an insistent motif appears for the trumpet. This theme is developed around the orchestra building and developing many variants on the theme, becoming more light-hearted with something of a traditional jig before leading to a final fugal section.

Mirth Day Fiesta draws on a day of celebration unique to the university that showcases cultures and ethnicities.  A xylophone opens the movement with low brass, soon joined by a flute and the rest of the orchestra as the music opens out into a lovely melody. Soon there is a change to a lively dance rhythm followed by varying rhythmic versions with pizzicato lower strings pointing up the music. The xylophone gently returns as the music quietens and flows forward with brass leading ahead before woodwind join for the rhythmic coda.

Tritons Ascending refers to the mythological mascot of the university. There is a gentle, hushed opening to which woodwind soon add little motifs before developing into a texture of woven sounds that flow forward, building in depth to the coda.

Barbara Harbach is an impressive composer who has a depth of expression underneath the surface attractions of her music.

There is fine playing from David Angus and the London Philharmonic Orchestra who receive an excellent recording engineered by Mike Hatch at the Henry Wood Hall, London, England. There are excellent booklet notes.

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