John Harbison. Pulitzer-winning composer takes his prize in stride

JOHN HARBISON makes a comment about the Pulitzer Prize in music that lets you know winning it this year somehow hasn't gone to his head: ``Well, it pays $1,000, and they have a luncheon for which they don't pay travel. So, if you're in Los Angeles, you can spend half your prize to go to the luncheon.''

This week the Pulitzer board announced that the cash award is being raised to $3,000 for next year's recipients - but not in time to defray costs for Mr. Harbison.

It was Harbison's composition - a 15-minute sacred piece for chamber orchestra, chorus, and soloists, entitled ``The Flight Into Egypt'' - that won the award in April as the best work premi`ered in last year.

Harbison, whose musical roots run deep in the Boston area, where ``The Flight Into Egypt'' received its premi`ere, ``reaches his listeners with an innate lyric capacity to embed an emotional content in his work,'' says fellow composer Harold Shapiro, a professor of music at Brandeis University, near Boston. ``It's a genuine communicative gift, perfected with lots of hard work. And it's the opposite of what academic composers do with intellectual pieces that have ornate designs but don't move you.''

Michael Steinberg, musical adviser at the San Francisco Symphony, which premi`ered Harbison's Second Symphony in May, says, ``No one else has the flavors, aromas, and spices mixed together in the tremendous orchestral textures of John's works.''

According to Mr. Steinberg, Harbison's compositions resemble a cross between American composers Roger Sessions (``long lines, extended melodies with immense tensile strength'') and George Gershwin (``a very American, insouciant Broadway flavor''). ``His wide background in jazz has left a real mark on his harmonic thinking,'' adds Steinberg, who remembers Harbison as a conductor of standard-setting performances of Sch"utz and Bach in Boston, as well as of contemporary works. ``He's one of those composers who is an all-round musician - an extraordinary musical mind from the classics to contemporary.''

Harbison himself considers ``The Flight Into Egypt'' his ``most Bostonian piece, because the city has developed such a tremendous connection to the sacred tradition.'' The work was commissioned by Boston's Cantata Singers, premi`ered last Nov. 21, and has been performed only once since - May 31 at the Ojai Music Festival near here.

The text was developed from the biblical ``Book of Matthew'' narrative concerning the flight of the holy family from Herod, who was about to slaughter innocent children. But it also carries modern social overtones in addressing the plight of the homeless and the slaughter of innocents.

``The group of performers I was writing it for were, subconsciously, the kind of people I've worked with for years doing Bach cantatas and Sch"utz motets. The tradition is not something you find in too many cities.''

Composer Shapiro rates ``Flight'' as a relatively modest piece from Harbison's extensive oeuvre ``of far more complex and interesting works.'' Those include two symphonies, huge quantities of chamber music, opera, and string concertos.

Harbison taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1969 to '82, before becoming composer-in-residence at the Pittsburgh Symphony (1982-85). And he has twice been director of the Cantata Singers, based in Boston's Emmanuel Church, which paid $5,000 for its commission of the piece, half of which Harbison gave to charity.

``You'd have to write a lot of $5,000 pieces in a year to make a living,'' he says. ``I'm not that fast a composer.

``You can get a lot more than $5,000 for singing the mezzo-soprano in the Beethoven C Major Mass for any American orchestra for a weekend,'' adds the man who keeps one foot in the door at MIT teaching composition to non-music majors ``out of economic necessity.'' He'll return there as head of the music department after his current stint as composer-in-residence at the Los Angeles Philharmonic ends.

``The list of composers who've won the Pulitzer is a very distinguished list,'' he says, citing his own teacher, Roger Sessions, and William Schuman, Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, Charles Wuorinen, and George Perle. ``And the list of people who have not gotten it is a very distinguished list. And I view them as equally distinguished lists.''

The choosing of prizewinners is ``a very subjective process in which many compositions are worthy,'' he adds. ``You know, you go to a concert, and you'll love something you hear and talk to somebody next to you, and they dislike it intensely. That's why we have arts, you know.''

But he says it's nice to be recognized, ``and when I apply for a job at a university in the future, I'll have more leverage.'' He says he already has more demand for his work than he can meet.

His current role as resident composer at the Los Angeles Philharmonic means doing lots of things besides composing, he says - ``promotion of new-music activities, speaking to groups, doing some teaching in various institutions. I've never had a pure composer job, where somebody just said, `Just compose.'''

Many of his compositions, though, are written in the idyllic setting of his wife's family farm in Token Creek, Wis.

``My perfect year was the year I had a Guggenheim Fellowship,'' he recalls. ``I wrote a wind quintet and most of a piano concerto and a sacred cantata called `Samuel Chapter,' and most of an opera called ``Full Moon in March.' For me that's a lot of work.''

Asked for insights into the climate for musical composition in the United States today, Harbison's usually mild-mannered demeanor intensifies.

``I think it's gotten worse. We're so outgunned by the public relations and promotional power of the more popular media in the concert music world. Even a big organization like this Los Angeles Philharmonic cannot compete with the most powerful of the rock promotions going on.''

He says the few classical superstars like Itzhak Perlman, Luciano Pavarotti, and Pinchas Zukerman only confuse the issue. ``They become like rock stars in persona and salary and seem to suggest to the public that ... the best way to interpret the classical music world is ... as a sort of star system, in which rather little is worth their attention unless it's at that very heady, $60,000-a-night level.''

Harbison says all this puts orchestras and opera companies in a marketing bind, ``because we have a culture which is so totally geared towards identifying people as the best and getting the most for it, and having the most exposure. ... If superstar players really want to put their energies where it matters, they should be putting their money and their mouths at the service of very recent and very challenging music.''

As conductor of the Philharmonic's new-music ensemble, Harbison is literally at the forefront of the orchestra's sponsorship of contemporary work.

``The new-music work is a remarkable investment of the Philharmonic in an artistic issue,'' Harbison told one critic recently. ``For me it is an absolute holiday to work with a group that is not struggling from concert to concert on a budgetary and audience level. We get 800 or 900 people at each concert, and the reason is that the programs are funded and publicized by a larger organization.''

Harbison explains that one reason he is returning to the Boston area to teach at MIT when his residency here is finished is to get away from a hierarchy of values that puts concert music way down the list behind film, television, theater, and fine arts - and return ``to a kind of musical tradition that is more alive in Boston than any city I can think of.''

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