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British Orchestral Grace with Davis

Sir Andrew Davis
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Saturday, August 28, 2021
8:00 PM

In a concert originally broadcast in 2019, Andrew Davis leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the Symphony No. 5 by Vaughan Williams and Harbison's Symphony No. 2, and Alessio Bax is the soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24, Saturday at 8pm.

Andrew Davis, conductor
Alessio Bax, piano

John HARBISON Symphony No. 2
MOZART Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor

Encore broadcast from Saturday, January 12, 2019

John Harbison previews his Second Symphony and talks about his composing career on the occasion of his 80th birthday, in the audio player above.

WCRB's Brian McCreath talks with pianist Alessio Bax about Mozart's piano concertos and much more (transcript below):


Transcript of interview with John Harbison:

Brian McCreath [00:00:00] I'm Brian McCreath. I'm at Symphony Hall with John Harbison, and he is the composer of the Symphony No. 2, played by the BSO this week with Sir Andrew Davis. John, thanks for a little bit of your time today

John Harbison [00:00:10] I'm delighted to be here.

Brian McCreath [00:00:12] So the Symphony No. 2, I found it interesting as a part of the program that acknowledges and celebrates your 80th birthday, as one of the symphonies that you actually didn't write for the BSO. You've written other symphonies for them. But tell me about the choice of this symphony for this concert and whether that was something that the BSO wanted or if this was your suggestion to them to use the Symphony No. 2 as part of their celebration of your career.

John Harbison [00:00:39] They chose the piece and I'm glad they did. It's certainly a piece I hold in, you know, very close regard. I mean, it was written for San Francisco Symphony, and it was a time sort of in the mid-80s, where I was very prone to sort of dark periods. And I was thinking about, in this piece, this idea of the times of day and particularly engaging with the effect of, I guess, of light on us, on our moods and on our kind of general responses to life. And so each of the movements sort of settles in on a certain time of day.

Brian McCreath [00:01:37] Right. Right.

John Harbison [00:01:37] And it ends, the piece ends with a very hard message, in a way. The last movement is probably the starkest and most, shall we say, just conflicted. Even the ending doesn't try to really sum things up in a very neat way. In fact, I was just talking to Sir Andrew Davis about the character of the ending. Asking him to be a little less warm to it.

Brian McCreath [00:02:18] Oh, wow. Yeah.

John Harbison [00:02:20] Because I think where it needs to reside is a place that's not completely comfortable. And I was fortunate in the first performance of this piece to have a very good engagement with it from Herbert Blomstedt.

Brian McCreath [00:02:36] Who was at that time, the director--

John Harbison [00:02:37] Who was in San Francisco at the time, who did the piece and then did something with it, which I had, which a composer of our era seldom experiences, which is he brought it back in a subsequent season, in fact, twice.

Brian McCreath [00:02:55] And he recorded it for commercial release.

John Harbison [00:02:57] Yes. So all of those things are very unusual. And the most unusual part for me was understanding something I had never been able to verify, which is that if an orchestra comes back soon to a piece, the level of retention and of engagement with the piece is so much more exponentially important than I ever could have guessed.

Brian McCreath [00:03:23] Wow.

John Harbison [00:03:24] I always thought it would be true because I had heard standard works coming back, and always heard them, even if they were already standard works, more eloquently portrayed because the players bring to it the recent experience. But it was a shock to me how quickly the music came back to the San Francisco Symphony when they when they returned to it.

Brian McCreath [00:03:50] Yeah.

John Harbison [00:03:51] It was also a depressing kind of knowledge to me because, you know, it very, very, very seldom happens.

Brian McCreath [00:04:00] Yeah.

John Harbison [00:04:01] In this era.

Brian McCreath [00:04:02] So you begin to think, what if more of my pieces had this kind of treatment. Sure.

John Harbison [00:04:05] Exactly. I'd begin to think if this piece, which is quite difficult, emerged in such a different form and was so much more at the hands of the players in this soon, this quick reiteration, it makes more difference than I ever imagined. And of course, I always really felt that the standard works, the ones that come back very often to the orchestra, they begin rehearsal at a completely different juncture than new pieces.

Brian McCreath [00:04:35] Sure, yeah.

John Harbison [00:04:37] They are just in another part of a journey. And if you were to put it on a map, it would be a long distance on a map. That first reading of, say, the Beethoven symphony that is almost always going to come every couple of years, is that is not a reading at all. You know, it is another investigation of territory which is already familiar.

Brian McCreath [00:05:00] Well, and to that point, I mean, the recent experience of the BSO on tour when they had to suddenly come up with a different program, it was Beethoven [Symphony No.] 7 they turned to because they knew they could just do a sound check and play it at the Concertgebouw.

John Harbison [00:05:11] Yeah, there are pieces which our great orchestra's simply ready to play.

Brian McCreath [00:05:15] Yeah, yeah.

John Harbison [00:05:16] And this piece is now quite a long time since it came here. Some players certainly were here and played it.

Brian McCreath [00:05:26] It was 2010, I think.

John Harbison [00:05:27] Yeah. And I think there is a kind of residual memory of every piece that an orchestra plays that makes a difference. But it is tremendously important actually to remember, I guess, for us both composers and listeners, everybody, is that absorption is probably as much of a performance as actual minutes on stage rehearsing.

Brian McCreath [00:05:54] That must be the case for any piece, of course. But this particular symphony, knowing the music of yours that I do know, which I can't say is comprehensive, but I do know some of your pieces. This one seems, it strikes me as more than usual for your music, reliant or takes advantage of texture and blend, in a way that I think of a lot of your pieces as really kind of based in a rhythmic sort of language and a really exciting, visceral, rhythmic language. But this one, while there is exciting, visceral, rhythmic parts to it, it's so much about texture, so much about color. And that must also lend itself to that kind of growth within a musician when they play it as a repeated piece.

John Harbison [00:06:43] Very much so, yeah. It's an elaborate.. It was a, I go through periods where I write more or less elaborately, depending on sort of what, really, what kind of character I'm looking for. And there are a lot of places in this piece where foreground and background are deliberately confused. That is the the main tunes often in this piece are fighting their way through rather dense foliage. I actually thought of it as like foliage, like leaves and trees and stuff, like the thing growing around the tunes. And that's something I would actually be doing rather seldom, was for this occasion that I was thinking a lot about this.

Brian McCreath [00:07:35] OK, I'm glad to hear that I was sort of on the right track with that. The music stands out a little bit.

John Harbison [00:07:39] And I was thinking it was a little bit like the orchestration of, my favorite orchestration, actually, of Bach and the cantatas, where there isn't the kind of foregrounding of principal voices that you would find in later scores. It's almost that performers have to make decisions about that, and I think that's also true here. I think there are many times where, like in the slow movement, the big, the sort of major tune, has an awful lot of commentary going on around it. And I actually thought of that commentary in, I sort of had words for some of it, and some of it, the forest creatures and heavy growth in the forest, that kind of thing, because it seemed important to me that the the nature of the tunes were something that we had to hunt for. And it's much less likely to happen in most of my other pieces.

Brian McCreath [00:08:48] Yeah.

John Harbison [00:08:49] Much of what we do as composers is highlighting and foregrounding the things that we want to come through and ensure, and I wrote this piece mostly free of that attitude.

Brian McCreath [00:09:02] That's interesting. And I'm also happy to hear you say that you're drawing allusions to foliage, to forests, things that are beautiful, because when a listener hears density as a description, there's a little bit of an intimidation factor there. This is dense, but it's beautifully dense. It's beautifully textured and layered. And you anticipated another question of mine, which is, I always have to ask you, where Bach fits into this. So central in your life, to most musicians lives. But you mentioned the way that he doesn't foreground things in his cantatas, sometimes. I think especially of certain chorale tunes that are layered underneath something else going on.

John Harbison [00:09:45] Really, absolutely. Indeed. And essentially he doesn't foreground them. I mean, he seems to weight, his orchestra is sort of a bunch of weighted, equally weighted parts. Yeah. And there isn't, if you want, say, here, a singer in a Bach aria with strings, you actually have to edit such that because it's all written very importantly in the details. I mean, if you play the viola part in, you know, almost any Bach movement, you think you have a very, very cogent and satisfying material. And in fact, you're not the main voice.

Brian McCreath [00:10:21] Right.

John Harbison [00:10:22] 98 percent of the time. But I think, I think that's one of the things that I was thinking about in this piece, was trying to make textures which were really, almost like "ricercar," the old word "ricercar," where you look for the subject. There's kind of a fugue in the last movement, at least, I thought it was a fugue. The subject, though, I like the feeling that you're always, your ears, looking for the subject. It's being played, but you are not really being led to it.

Brian McCreath [00:11:01] Yeah.

John Harbison [00:11:02] And I think it's an attitude which really pervades this piece.

Brian McCreath [00:11:06] Yeah. Well, and now here you are in a year celebrating your 80th birthday, which was last month. But so many organizations are celebrating your life and your career at this moment. And it gives you a chance for real perspective on your work that you probably never had before. And when it comes to the Symphony No. 2, I don't know if you've, if there are others who have performed this that you've been in the presence of this year. But tell me about what you feel in terms of your perception of it now. You're not the same composer you were in 1987. And what do you hear about yourself? What have you learned about yourself through this symphony specifically during this year?

John Harbison [00:11:50] Well, we go through a lot of times and I realize, again, as I get to 80, there are things that we can take along, and most everything we shed. That is to say, there are things that I would like to be able to do, but it's not in my ears anymore to do it. So when I hear the music of this period, I, I think of the kind of profusion of detail which is much less likely to come into my mind now. I tend to want to hear, now, much fewer notes and much shorter phrases and perhaps signify things in a more of a shorthand, but I think that's something that happens to a lot of composers as they get older, because you have a background of having done many things and you don't want to do them again. And that particularly means you don't want to expand things in the same way. You almost want to find ways to say everything or to do everything more compactly. That will be the first thing I want to hear with this piece. I think this this seems like a great deal of midnight oil, or what of what Alec Wilder and his popular songbook calls the "green eyeshade," went into the making of this piece, that is not the kind of effort I would be making now.

Brian McCreath [00:13:24] Yeah, and at the same time, I've always understood from composers, and it sounds like you're getting at this, that so many composers place such a high value on what they call economy, that there's an economy of expression that you say as much as you can, but with as little as you need to. And so it sounds like that's, you describe it as a way of not repeating yourself. "I've done this. I don't want to do that again." But it's also maybe, I suggest to you, that maybe right now your economy of expression is so refined, so heightened, that you can say way more in a lower number of notes than you ever really did before.

John Harbison [00:14:04] Though paradoxically, when I hear this piece, I would love to be able to be this abundant again.

Brian McCreath [00:14:11] OK, OK. That's interesting to me.

John Harbison [00:14:12] I just don't have those drawer-fulls of both textural and melodic kinds of elaborations. That's just not coming into my head. And so a friend of mine used to kid me about, years ago, about being jealous of not being able to do this or that anymore. And, but I think that's a normal thing. I mean, there's so much change and so many things you can't take along. But composers who have been lucky to live a long time, I think that profile is interesting, that there are things available at certain times and then they're not available and other things come along. But that's, right now, the way I'm feeling. My cutting room floor has got very large. I've got a lot of room on the cutting room floor.

Brian McCreath [00:15:13] You describe it, and certainly the printed score even came out this way, that you were inspired by the times of day and actually makes me think of the Haydn "Daypart" symphonies, right, the Morning, Noon and Evening Symphonies. And I just wonder if, when you hear this piece now, you've listened to it as the BSO has rehearsed it, do you hear as clearly that inspiration as you had hoped you would?

John Harbison [00:15:39] I do. And I'm very surprised how well I remember the notes of the piece because it's been a number of decades. But I do find, I started just the last few years going back over older pieces that I hadn't really thought about for a while. And the surprising thing was always just actually whatever judgment or whatever reaction I had to them. I did remember the detail, which I was a little surprised by that. I knew I would remember things when I wrote when I was 17 years old. Because your memory is strong at that age. I was a little more surprised that I could really recall things still pretty well and sometimes with the feeling that I don't know why they came out that way at that time. But that doesn't mean that they're still quite apprehendable, when I, like, think in the abstract about a given piece. There are usually at least large swatches that are still very clear in my head, I guess, because, you know, you sit around and ponder. I was reading a lot about people who meditate, you know, that build that into their lives. I think composers, a lot of what you do is you sit around and wait. And then in the present time, what I do is sit around, wait and write down a lot of stuff which I can't use. And stuff I cannot use has grown much larger in proportion to what I can. But that is still, that process, the meditation process, is probably kind of a balancing thing, too. If you're not somebody who wants to sit and wait, you probably would be better off doing something else. There's no other way to do it.

Brian McCreath [00:17:36] Yeah. Yeah.

John Harbison [00:17:37] I love reading about other composers, old composers, what they did. I mean, Stravinsky used to play older music, you know.

Brian McCreath [00:17:45] Yeah.

John Harbison [00:17:45] He would say, and wait for a little leap in his spirit, he said, while I play [indistinct]. Haydn strummed on the piano, which is interesting because his piano music is not really at the center of his creation. And what he would often do after improvising on the piano, he'd write symphonies and quartets. So clearly the fingers are not dictating to him the shape of those ideas, but something about his mind needs a process of meditating of that sort. I think that that's, all, I think, that's very relatable to all kinds of other modes of life where everyone has to develop some habits that will make them able to function, to do something.

Brian McCreath [00:18:34] Yeah. And as I listen to you, and as I've kept up with your 80th birthday year, I've built this impression, and tell me if I'm wrong, but there's very little that you are looking back on with dismay or regret or wondering what you were thinking. I mean, you sound like you have a very healthy relationship with your past. I wish maybe more people had that.

John Harbison [00:18:57] Well, I sort of took that on as a problem a few years ago because I thought I needed to actually check through my pieces, particularly ones that hadn't been performed much, some that had performed only once, just to see what was in there, whether it was what I remembered. And this was very helpful. It was not helpful to the creation of new pieces, but it was certainly helpful because, of course, I was squeezing my terrain a lot. But at the same time, it was helpful in another way of feeling, understanding why I was where I was in each given instance. I mean, I'm just thinking, well, in many cases, yes, I had to see that through, you know, and that's a lot of what you feel like composing is like. You know, you're in a situation and you think, well, and it has nothing to do with having permission or anything else. It's like you become committed to seeing where this goes. And often because some of the time, in the process, you don't really exactly know where it's going. I always tell my composition students at Tanglewood when we talk about writing program notes that one of the things we need to do for the public is give the impression we do know what we're doing. I don't think that people want to read...

Brian McCreath [00:20:18] We've seen behind the curtain now, John! [Laughs]

John Harbison [00:20:19] People really don't want to read anything very real about the process, because it's so strange and so completely not very predictable. I think we have to, our professional responsibility is to give the impression that this was a wonderful, inevitable outcome. But I think that for composers down through the years, there are always so many surprises and so many veers, and even in things which turned out to be very lucid, formerly, there are probably turns in the road that could not possibly have been guessed.

Brian McCreath [00:20:56] Yeah. Yeah. Wow. Well, I'm so glad that this is the symphony that the BSO chose. I really do love this symphony. It's just so beautiful. And as I mentioned before, the textures are something that I found unexpected from your music, but that I know from all the music I love of yours. And so, thanks for taking some time to talk with me about it, and, well, all the 80 years that you've been here and with us and producing great music.

John Harbison [00:21:22] Well, whoever chose it over here at the BSO, I'm grateful to, because it's definitely a piece I wanted to hear again, too.

Brian McCreath [00:21:27] Excellent. Thanks a lot, John.

John Harbison [00:21:28] Thank you.

Transcript of interview with Alessio Bax:

Brian McCreath [00:00:00] I'm Brian McCreath from WCRB, I'm at Symphony Hall with Alessio Bax. And Alessio, you're here for the first time. And one of our favorite sports here in Boston, aside from the Patriots and the Red Sox, is I always ask people, what do you think of Symphony Hall now that you've played in it?

Alessio Bax [00:00:13] Oh, do you need to ask that question? Really? Really. I mean, that's one of the greatest places I've heard. I grew up hearing about it, and this is my first time here. It's really a dream come true, and to play with this orchestra. And just this morning I was selecting, had to choose between two pianos and they're both great. But in truth, I don't think a piano can sound bad in this place. It's quite stunning.

Brian McCreath [00:00:36] Yeah, we're pretty lucky. And that's why we have that question. We usually know the answer, but it's fun to ask it anyway. Which piano did you end up choosing, by the way, if you if you don't mind saying?

Alessio Bax [00:00:45] No, the Hamburg Steinway. I thought, I mean, both pianos were amazing, they can be used for a wide range of repertoire. Usually in an orchestra, if you have a selection of two pianos, one would be much broader, and the other... And this is a little bit the case here, [indistinct] can be pushed more. But I think for the Mozart, you need the most beautiful sound you can get.

Brian McCreath [00:01:03] Yeah.

Alessio Bax [00:01:04] And yet a sound that cuts through the orchestra as well.

Brian McCreath [00:01:07] Yeah, sure. And yeah, those pianos are pretty recent acquisitions from the BSO, so you're among the first within the first few years of those using them. Tell me about choosing the C Minor Concerto for this program. Was that a choice that you made or were you asked to play that? Do you even remember?

Alessio Bax [00:01:25] I'm not 100 percent sure because this, you know, talks and negotiations started way, way before the dates. I mean, but this is always been one of my, I want to say, favorite concerti, because especially when it comes to Mozart, they're all so beautiful and so different. It's almost if someone asks a father who is your favorite child and it's just an impossible thing to answer. But I have to say that this is really quite, quite special. It's very operatic. There are mood changes and atmosphere changes in sound world, quick changes. Just like in opera. There's incredible writing not only for the piano, but also for for the orchestra, especially for the woodwinds. They're all double woodwinds. Every player in this piece has a wonderful time. And I think it's quite, quite special. And yeah, maybe I can safely say it's one of my favorites.

Brian McCreath [00:02:20] Sure, sure. And tell me about, I mean, I guess some people get really into that idea that there's only two or three minor key concertos, something like that. And so how does that play out for you in terms of performing it, compared to the major key concertos which are there are a lot more of?

Alessio Bax [00:02:40] Yeah, I mean, I would hate to generalize, but yeah, you're right. And there's definitely a lot of drama, much more drama in this piece than in others. Although, you know, if you have a beautiful concerto in a major key and then the minor key comes in, by contrast, it has so much more. And here you have the opposite. You have incredible major tunes, C Major tune in the melody in the last movement, for example, that really feels like a breath of fresh air. And then yet it's right after that, all hope is crushed. So I think it works both ways. By contrast, Mozart was a master in dramatic contrast, and this always starts the bar with something so dark and bare and almost chilling. You know, you have those three notes unison and third is quite unexpected and you don't know where this piece is going to bring you. It's quite alright.

Brian McCreath [00:03:35] Yeah. Yeah. So I'm fascinated with your your sort of geographic trajectory. You're born in Italy, yeah? And then, and you live now in New York. You spent some time in Dallas, you've been all over the place. And I wonder, I'm always curious when people have that kind of background, whether you see more things in common among those who are in the audience for your concerts or whether you really feel like there are differences among the way that different people hear music in where they live.

Alessio Bax [00:04:04] That's a great question. I think great music like this is so beyond, you know, the audience or us as performers and human beings that deep down every audience reacts in the same way. The differences are how they show their emotions to the music. So, for example, the audience in Japan would be incredibly quiet throughout the performance. In Italy, would be quite noisy. But I think music deep down affects people from different backgrounds in the same, in exactly the same way. And then, of course, there's the personal element. You know, music affects single people in different ways, according to your own personal experience. But that's a different layer already. But initially, I think everyone reacts in the same way to music, and they appreciate it really in the same way when it comes to such an amazing, amazing music. So I think the minor differences in how audiences are used or culturally brought up to react to that, you know, in Italy, they jump up and scream even during the piece sometimes. But, you know, it's quite, quite special.

Brian McCreath [00:05:13] Yeah, yeah. And do these different places where you've been based over the years lead you to any particular ideas of kind of what classical music needs to do to be more a part of people's lives? I mean, I think that honestly, we here in Boston are pretty spoiled by what's around us in this town. It's a little bit more, well, maybe a lot more active than a lot of other cities. But I kind of wonder, you get a chance to see more of these places than than most of us do. And does that lead you to any ideas about the ways that classical music reaches people?

Alessio Bax [00:05:48] I mean, I think each one of us has to do their own, and has to contribute somehow. And there's no secret recipe. I think I'm not worried about the future of classical music, it's been around forever. The music is so great, as long as there is what I like to call "quality control," it's self sustainable eventually. But of course, we need to get younger people to go to concerts and so on. But it's always been somehow an issue that classical music is something that people get to very often later in life. Education is a big, big, big deal, a big component how to get people. But I'm really hopeful about the future of classical music just based on the music itself.

Brian McCreath [00:06:31] Yeah, you've released a lot of recordings, which many of which I'm familiar with. There's a Bach recording you did that I love. But the most recent one is the Emperor Concerto, which you also-- at least the most recent one that we've gotten that's been released, I think. And and I was interested in the choice that you used to to fill out that CD, some contradances, which, you know, they're lovely, but most people kind of just set them aside. They're not the most compelling Beethoven to some people. But tell me about the the choice of those contradances on your recording of the Emperor Concerto.

Alessio Bax [00:07:05] Yeah, I mean, I had a few single themed CDs just based on the single composers and I always like to find minor works by great composers because I think there's really greatness in in all of them. The contradances I think are so fresh and so much fun and so there's so many unexpected turns. And he does it in a matter of seconds. I mean, none of them is longer than 20, 30 seconds. So it's quite extraordinary how a composer that's written such large scale works could could be so succinct and so, so impactful in a way. They don't have, obviously, they don't have the depth of other of the pieces, but there's one of them where, it's gave birth to the theme from Eroica Symphony, and how they're connected to each other, it's quite fascinating. Plus, these transcriptions were originally done by Beethoven, which is quite interesting. It's originally an orchestral piece. And then there's a polonaise in that CD, that really, it's really looking forward to Chopin in so many different ways, even in this writing for the right hand, how it was freely written. And there's a prelude that really looks back to Bach with Tempered Clavier. And it's fascinating to me how all of these small elements made what Beethoven is, even in the larger works.

Brian McCreath [00:08:29] Right. Right. And your wife is a pianist as well. And just tell me how how that works in your household. I mean, you're both doing concerts, and you must have to spend a lot of time practicing, both of you. Are there two instruments in the house? I mean, how do you negotiate your professional lives as pianists together?

Alessio Bax [00:08:49] Well, it's a wonderful thing if you do get along with the person, which we do, to share a profession or a passion or a hobby, whatever it is, because then you really understand each other. I mean, when she's able to come to one concert is really an extra set of ears. And I get really spoiled by getting that feedback because she knows what I'm going for and what I'm trying to do. And so it's quite, quite special to be able to share that. And we do manage to to book a few tours together in piano four hands or two pianos repertoire, and especially piano four hands. I think there's some of the most amazing, intimate and meaningful and special music ever written. So that's really quite, quite a special element in the relationship.

Brian McCreath [00:09:35] Yeah, that's terrific. Well, Alessio Bax, welcome to Boston and thanks for taking a little bit of time to talk with me today. I appreciate it.

Alessio Bax [00:09:40] Pleasure. Thank you.