Classical CD Reviews

‘Barbara Harbach, Vol. 7, Music for Strings’ – London Philharmonic Orch./ soloists/ David Angus – MSR

Very pleasant works, easy to absorb, no categories needed.

Published on March 30, 2012

‘Barbara Harbach, Vol. 7, Music for Strings’ – London Philharmonic Orch./ soloists/ David Angus – MSR

‘Barbara Harbach, Vol. 7, Music for Strings’ = BARBARA HARBACH: Sinfonietta; In Memoriam: Turn Round, O My Soul; Freedom Suite; Two Songs from The Sacred Harp; Demarest Suite; Nights in Timisoara; Lilia Polka – London Philharmonic Orch./ soloists/ David Angus – MSR Classics  MS 1258, 68:03 [Distr. by Albany] ***:

Many people like creating and using a categorical approach to new music and modern composers. Is it a sort of minimalism? Is it atonal or polyharmonic?  Does the composer have a unique voice? The new eclecticism?

Barbara Harbach’s music is, perhaps, none of these things and that’s just fine. There actually are a growing number of composers whose music might be described as a sort of neo-Romanticism—which strives to be whatever the composer wants it to be and which seems to actively strive to not be of a particular “school.” So is the case with this pleasant easy-listening collection of her music; volume seven in a series from MSR.

I heard elements of the English string writers in her opening Sinfonietta, for example. A little Parry, Bridge or Delius can be heard in this three movement work that evokes a variety of moods. It is intended as an almost mini-symphony and sounds more like a suite from disparate sources. As Harbach quotes a bit from her own opera, O Pioneers!, this may be why. It is very pretty throughout and never at any time goes overly sentimental or dramatic.

Harbach is a keyboardist by training – organ and harpsichord – and has spent a lot of time studying and editing the music of the Baroque. She teaches at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and is quite active in the St. Louis music scene, including the promotion of music by women composers and performers. Some of her connections to and admiration for church music emerge in the brief, but effective In Memoriam: Turn Round, O My Soul. This six-minute work is intended as an elegy for All Souls Day and feelings of the venerated departed through the thoughts of Christian belief. This, too, is a very pretty, restful and uncomplicated piece.

The trend to the accessible and idiomatic continues in Harbach’s Freedom Suite. The title alone implies a sort of Americana sound reminiscent of Copland or Harris or Hanson and such is the case but with good reason. The three movements depict and evoke the spiritual sound and elements of the emancipation period in general. Exact spirituals such as “The Good Lord is Comin’ for Me” and “Go Down, Moses” are the sources of inspiration for the opening two movements and the piece, in whole, is written in homage to the life of Harriet Scott, wife of Dred Scott, and their two daughters, Eliza and Lizzie. There is a kind of documentary soundtrack feel to the music but it is – again – very pleasant and does evoke a particular genre of imagery.

Part of the reason that much of this music sounds like Americana and fits these general categories is Harbach’s own interest in early American hymn tunes. “The Sacred Harp” is a compilation of such by the early 19th century hymnist Benjamin Franklin White.  Two Songs from The Sacred Harp is actually Harbach’s string version of two hymns in Franklin’s collection, “The Morning Trumpet” and “Chester” (by Billings).

The Demarest Suite was written for a high school honors orchestra in Demarest, New Jersey. A nicely compelling work, the three movements here, too, have a connection to early American themes; such as her O Pioneers!, a reference to letters from Abigail Adams to her husband and, according to booklet notes, more themes from O Pioneers!. The net effect is, again, pleasant.

Thematically, the two works that close this program are a bit different from the others. Nights in Timisoara is intended to sound Roumanian, named after the Roumanian city through which many different cultures have emerged and blended. This is a string version of Harbach’s work, originally written for organ. The very short Lilia Polka is a work written by Kate Chopin for her daughter as a piano piece. Harbach wrote it as a woodwind quintet and, later, in this version. Harbach’s work acknowledges St. Louis’s prominent German population and the popularity of polkas within as her inspiration.

I did not in any way dislike Barbara Harbach’s music. Not having heard the other six volumes of her recordings on MSR it is difficult to make any sweeping conclusions. I do think that the description of all these pieces as “pleasant” and frequently with that sort of general “Americana” sound to most of them is accurate. In a way, one could listen to all these works in a row – except for Nights in Timisoara and the Lilia Polka – and have a little trouble catching where one ends and the next begins.

Her style lends itself actually quite well to school repertory. There are plenty of young orchestras that could perform these works well and enjoy doing so; again the audience-friendly nature of all of this would be another benefit. I do not know how much of this kind of writing Ms. Harbach does but it seems like a good fit.

I am less convinced that major symphony orchestras – such as the local St. Louis Symphony – would program a lot of these pieces or that her works are the sort of thing that those groups take interest in. In the meantime, everything here is quite likeable and non-weighty and certainly worth one’s time to listen to and decide for one’s self.

—Daniel Coombs




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