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New Music Raises Old Questions

John Harbison: An Evening of Chamber Works Featuring Ian Carroll '97 and Noam Elkies Sunday, December 3 at Paine Hall

By Adam Kirsch

If ever there was a monument to the Western Canon, Paine Hall is it. High above the audience, in proud brass letters, the names of the Great Composers--Beethoven, Schubert, Bach--remind us that we are in a temple of culture, to be enlightened by the best music from the best minds in history. The literal presence of these great names only emphasized the question posed by last Sunday's concert: is that tradition still alive, and does John Harbison belong to it?

Harbison, who lives in Cambridge, is one of the most accessible modern composers. He has all the proofs of success in today's shrunken musical world: a Pulitzer Prize, for his 1987 opera "The Flight into Egypt," a professorship and commissions from major orchestras. But success for a composer in 1995 is not what it was even 50 years ago; the audience for Harbison's music, like the audience at Paine Hall on Sunday, is mainly other musicians and musical scholars. The concert, which featured Harvard students performing three short chamber works, illustrated some of the reasons why.

The main event of the evening was the premiere of a new saxophone sonata by Harbison, performed by Ian Carroll '97, with Professor of Mathematics Noam Elkies. The sonata, titled "San Antonio," was the most attractive of the three works performed, incorporating Latin dance rhythms and some of the jazz effects usually associated with the saxophone; as Harbison's program notes indicate, the three-movement work recalls an actual dance party upon which the composer stumbled while in San Antonio.

The spirit of dance is clearly present in the sonata, in which the saxophone and piano trade off short, melodic phrases and nervous, jagged notes. In the third movement, the lyrical quality of the dance music comes to the fore, with longer, even languorous saxophone solos that seem reminiscent of the mellow, probing style of a Grover Washington, Jr. or David Sanborn.

But the work also manifests those qualities which make so much post-war music difficult for the untrained ear: irregular tempo, unresolved chords and absence of melody. These qualities were less in evidence in the sonata than in the String Quartet #1, a work which even the composer describes as "grim and terse." The quartet begins with a mysterious Gypsy-like phrase, which is quickly flattened into harshness; the four instruments repeatedly diverge and then return with a burst of two or three dissonant notes. While the quartet is affecting and succeeds in communicating a certain nervous emotion, it is far from inviting.

Harbison's music, for all its concessions to tonality and sentimental program notes, is not calculated to win friends and influence people. That fact was evident in the mechanics of the sonata's premiere; it was-commissioned by a new World-Wide Concurrent Premieres and Commissioning Fund to which saxophonists around the world pay a fee for the right to premiere the work in their local area. Thus the work, which was performed Sunday night in dozens of cities, is guaranteed at least fifty performances; the idea is to avoid the fate of most commissions, which are performed once and then forgotten; the idea is to avoid the fate of most commissions, which are performed once and then forgotten.

Clearly, the need for such an organization is a sign of troubt. There simply is not the public demand, or interest, to support a composer's work; even more than poets and painters, they are creatures of the academy and the foundation. It is possible that it has always been so, that foundations have simply replaced the nobility as sources of patronage. Still, one has the feeling that a hundred years from now, nobody will build a concert hall and put the names of Harbison, Adams and Cage on the frieze.

Given the difficulty of the music, the performances on Sunday night were all the more impressive. The Cantabrigian String Quartet, composed of Harvard students Akiko Tarumoto '98, Rebecca Baumann '98, Philip Kim '98, and Ellis Verosub '98, gave a clear, intelligent rendition of Harbison's quartet. In the Chorale Cantata, which concluded the evening, soprano Awet Andemicael '96 displayed her usual lovely tone and crisp diction. She was accompanied by an ensemble composed of Salley Koo '97 and Stephanie Misono '98, violins; Peter Kim '96, viola; Raman Ramakrishnan '98, cello; and Andrew Cowan '96, bass. Oboist Daniel P. Kim '97 handled his several solos with penetrating clarity and a strong tone.

In the saxophone sonata, saxophonist Ian Carroll displayed comfort with the piece's classical and jazz elements. It is rare to hear the sax in a classical setting, and Carroll showed that the instrument is capable of much more than one might expect.

The distinct, even clarinet-like sound of the first movement gave way to a more florid, sweet tone in the last. Elkies was a theatrical accompanist, his elbow flying up and down with almost alarming force. If anything, he seemed too passionate, edging the saxophone into a louder range than was probably necessary. The enthusiasm of the audience, of about 50, was well merited.

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