Songs of John Harbison


HARBISON: Mirabai Songs. After Hours: excerpts.* North and South, Books I & II. Crossroads+ / Kendra Colton, sop; Kayo Iwama, *Sandford Margolis, pno; +Peggy Pearson, ob; Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble; Timothy Weiss, cond / Oberlin Music OC19-02

John Harbison, one of America’s better composers, presents here a selection of his songs as performed by soprano Kendra Colton, a noted interpreter of contemporary music as well as that of Bach.

Colton is a highly musical singer with a bright voice and generally good (but not crystal-clear) diction. But she is no spring chicken, having graduated from Oberlin (where she now teaches) in 1983, and the voice has a bit of wear on it. In her case, thank goodness, this wear is not evidenced by any sign of unsteadiness or wobble (the bane of most famous singers today) but merely by an edginess of tone which, played through my computer speakers, is exacerbated a bit. I would think that, singing in a large hall where the sound can dissipate, her voice would be more pleasant, but we take what we can.

Harbison’s style, as those who have heard his opera The Great Gatsby know, is essentially lyrical in the top line (whether vocal or instrumental) with Britten-like chords beneath it. He has a lively sense of rhythm and is a master of matching the patterns of his music to the patterns of speech as if one were reciting the words rather than singing them. This makes his music modern but not avant-garde; he is, rather, a composer in the tradition of Ned Rorem, which is not bad at all.

The Mirabai Songs are based on the poetry of Princess Mirabai who was one of Lord Krishna’s most devoted followers. Reading the lyrics, one is struck by her very poetic and sometimes graphic descriptions of love. For Mirabai, Krishna was apparently more than just a Hindu deity; she speaks of him and makes verbal love to him as if he were flesh and blood, creating an erotic tension in her words. Harbison’s music for these songs alternates between fast, edgy music (“Why Mira Can’t Go Back to her Old House”) and slower, more sensual melodies. It’s an interesting cycle of songs, then, with some really fine moments.

After Hours is a set of songs to the words of Murray Horwitz’ Baseline Ballad. The texts here are more American and descriptive, and so is Harbison’s music, even tossing in a few jazz licks for the piano accompanist in “Like Spring” and “Sleepsong.” Fortunately, Colton’s accompanist here, Peggy Pearson, gets the rhythms right. By contrast, North and South is set to six poems by Elisabeth Bishop, and these conflate tales of washing clothes and listening to singers on the radio with sensual overtones and sexual innuendo.

Crossroads, set to the poetry of Louise Glück, is accompanied by a small chamber ensemble of 12 strings and an oboe. Although a nice set of songs, I personally felt that the style and musical language used here was more formulaic and less original than the preceding works, but taken by itself it is a nice little cycle.

So there you have it. Basically, a well sung recital of mostly interesting music by an American original.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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