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SPCO: ‘Harbison in Focus’ features five of his contemporary classical works

Engine408 is the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra’s ongoing series to promote new classical music, and this season’s first program highlights the SPCO’s former creative chair, John Harbison, who will turn 71 on Sunday.

Five different pieces from Harbison’s oeuvre will be showcased, beginning, appropriately enough, with his 1979 work “Snow Country, Cantilena for Oboe and Strings,” a mostly unsettling composition comprising three sections over twelve minutes. SPCO oboist Kathryn Greenbank will obviously be featured.

Next up is a five-minute “Exequien for Calvin Simmons For Ensemble,” composed in tribute to the late conductor of the Oakland Symphony, shortly after his death from a boating accident in 1982. The year before, Simmons had conducted Harbison’s “Violin Concertos” with his wife, Rose Marie Harbison, as the principal soloist. This “Exequien,” says John Harbison, “is intended less as a lamentation than as a solemn affirmation.”

Another very short piece, “Fantasia on a Ground: I, II, III, IV, V for String Orchestra” (and don’t you just love the catchy titles?), slides between two more substantial works to close the performance. The first of these is “Crane Sightings, Eclogue for Solo Violin and Strings,” Harbison’s 15-minute attempt to capture the range of emotions that arises from an encounter with these majestic birds in southern Wisconsin. The violinist most familiar with the piece, his wife, will be featured.

The concert concludes with “Umbrian Landscape with Saint for Chamber Ensemble,” the lone 21st Century composition, having been written in 2001. It is a tribute to St. Francis of Assisi, or, more accurately, to the artistic panels painted by Giotto depicting the cycle of life of St. Francis, which Harbison believes captures the modesty and charity of the saint far better than the ornate church where Giotto’s panels are tucked in a corner. It is a fitting denouement for this holiday season concert.

After the concert, conductor Mark Russell Smith and Harbison himself will be available for a “special discussion.” And it is indeed a rare opportunity to converse with a significant composer moments after listening to his work performed by one of the world’s premiere chamber orchestras.

Pickings are slim for both audio and visual examples of Harbison’s work. Here is a graduate recital of his piece, “Couples Dance.” Here is another recital, of Harbison’s “Gatsby Etudes.”

And here is an offering of his “Piano Trio No. 2” on the eMusic.com site, where you can briefly sample some of the songs.

The SPCO’s engine408 series, “Harbison In Focus,” at The Music Room in St. Paul’s Hamm Building, tonight and Saturday night at 8 p.m. Tickets are free for Green Room members and $10 general admission, although both performances are very close to sold out.

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