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Three Questions Before the First Night, by Carson Cooman

John Harbison -- Concerto for Bass Viol

John Harbison (born 1934) is one of America's most distinguished and well-known contemporary composers, having contributed to the repertoire a number of widely performed compositions in nearly ever genre. Winner of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize, he also received worldwide recognition when The Metropolitan Opera commissioned and premièred his The Great Gatsby in 1999. His catalogue includes three operas, four symphonies, nine concerti, four string quartets, and numerous other cantatas, oratorios, chamber, and vocal works. He has written for and been commissioned by every major American orchestra and has been composer in residence with Pittsburgh Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Tanglewood, Marlboro, and Santa Fe Chamber Music Festivals, and the American Academy in Rome. He enjoys a special relationship with the Boston Symphony Orchestra which has, in recent years, commissioned and performed a large number of new works.

John Harbison
John Harbison

Among numerous works premièring this 2005-06 concert season (including Milosz Songs for soprano Dawn Upshaw and the New York Philharmonic) is his new Concerto for Bass Viol.

Commissioned by the International Society of Bassists as a consortium project, the work will have its initial première on 1 April 2006 by Joel Quarrington, bass with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Hugh Wolff, in Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto, Canada. The USA première follows a month later on 5 May 2006 by Tim Pitts, bass with the Houston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Hans Graf.

During the 2006-07 concert season, the rest of the initial performances of the concerto will occur and include: Ralph Jones with the Atlanta Symphony, Ed Barker with the Boston Symphony, Owen Lee with the Cincinnati Symphony, Dee Moses with the Florida Orchestra, Steve Benne with the Knoxville Symphony, Dennis Trembly with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Peter Lloyd with the Minnesota Orchestra, Jean-Luc Matton with the New Mexico Symphony, Hal Robinson with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Jeremy Kurtz with the San Diego Symphony, and Jordan Anderson with the Seattle Symphony.

Harbison's Concerto for Bass Viol is in three movements -- 'Lamento', 'Cavatina', and 'Rondo' -- and lasts about twenty minutes. In his notes, Harbison states 'My main experience of the bass viol is traceable to conducting over fifty Bach cantatas and playing in many jazz groups. In both situations my colleague played two roles: ensemble catalyst and soloist. I've drawn on these associations often, not just in this piece.'

OneCarson Cooman: This bass concerto project is rather amazing in scope -- being commissioned by the International Society of Bassists for so many players for performance, within the course of only two years by many of America's finest orchestras. Normally when a composer writes a concerto these days, it's conceived for a very specific soloist or single performance context in mind -- at least initially. How did the unusual and huge-ranging nature of this project (and the fact that there are to be so many initial soloists) affect your composition of the concerto?

John Harbison: The only way that it affected the actual composition is the factor of the tuning of the bass. The standard issue of the 'solo tuning' that a number of bassists choose for their instrument (with the entire orchestra then playing up a whole step) means that there is pre-thinking involved for the orchestra part -- so as to make sure it will work in both key areas. This particularly affects string harmonics and the upper registers of instruments.

Then, an added and quite interesting tuning issue is that some very fine players, including the first performer (Joel Quarrington) are playing with an entirely different tuning from either of the two normal ones. This other tuning uses the instrument in fifths, rather than the normal fourths. It means, of course, an entirely different set of harmonics and a different range both on top and below. So, while I was composing the work, I was really thinking of three different tunings at once.

I wrote only one solo part but was making sure in the mind that it would work in all of these contexts. Of course this issue about how to tune the bass goes back very far in history. For a good part of its history the tunings were even more fluid than they are now.

TwoCC: The bass is an instrument which has not had a great deal of concerto repertoire. The few frequently played 'standards' that it does have (such as the Koussevitsky concerto) are acknowledged by many to be somewhat 'weaker' compositions, particularly as compared to the concerto literature that exists for many other instruments. Did this aspect of the literature shape your thinking at all when writing a concerto for the bass viol?

JH: Well, I looked into some of the existing concerto literature for the bass, and actually liked some of the pieces very well. I particularly liked the Bottesini concerto in B minor -- very attractively written with a real Italian melodic thrust. I'm very impressed with the concerti that Edgar Meyer has written -- both his concerto for solo bass and his double concerto for bass and cello. They were written, of course, with great knowledge of the instrument but are also very well composed. So, my actual sense of the literature was that it compared pretty favorably with other instruments that have 'fewer concertos'.

ThreeCC: I know some composers who have written bass concerti in the past have commented on its difficulty as a concerto soloist with a symphony orchestra -- especially in terms of balance and color combinations with the rest of the ensemble. How did you address these issues in your work, and what do you feel the bass has to offer as special attributes as a concerto protagonist?

JH: I love the sound of the bass playing a solo line. It has a very unusual quality that I think makes it particularly appealing. As far as the balance goes, that's obviously a very difficult question. I've written a viola concerto and cello concerto in the past; on the lower strings at least, the cello has difficult balance issues as well. For the viola, the whole instrument is difficult to balance. So these sorts of problems are always there to some degree if you take as your soloist one of the least powerful instruments. In writing such a piece there is also a sense that the soloist is not always equally dominant in the texture.

But we never know what we've done until it actually happens. For example, I had a sense of false security with my viola concerto because the first performance was with Jamie Laredo on an unusually powerful viola. So I was congratulating myself too early after that performance about getting the balance issues right.

So, we'll see with this new bass concerto. It's certainly an instrument that I love hearing in the foreground and I think it's great for people in general to hear it too -- because we have far fewer occasions in the concert music literature where we get to hear the bass in such a prominent position.

Copyright © 2 March 2006 Carson P Cooman, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA








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