At the beginning of this month harmonia mundi released a new recording of three chamber music compositions by John Harbison, all performed by the California-based ensemble Camerata Pacifica. What is particularly interesting about the programming of this album is that, while all three pieces are instrumental, two of them are called collections of songs. Four Songs of Solitude is basically a four-movement suite for unaccompanied violin (performed by Paul Huang), while Songs America Loves To Sing is a set of ten arrangements scored for flute (Adrian Spence, Artistic Director of Camerata Pacifica), clarinet (Jose Franch-Ballester), violin (Huang), cello (Ani Aznavoorian), and piano (Warren Jones). Harbison’s portfolio currently contains a generous collection of original songs, choral works, and, of course, his operatic setting of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera to celebrate the 25th anniversary of James Levine’s tenure as Music Director. (He also sang in the Harvard Glee Club as an undergraduate.)
It should therefore be no surprise that Harbison would draw upon “vocal instincts,” even when writing only for instruments. Indeed, these two selections provide an interesting context for the opening work on the album, a 2013 string trio in which cellist Aznavoorian is joined by violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti and Richard O’Neill on viola. However, that Harvard Glee Club background may suggest a sense of personal nostalgia for those songs “America loves to sing.” Each of the short movements in this collection amounts to a free fantasia on a familiar tune that manages to be both wistful and outré at the same time. Most importantly, however, these arrangements are affectionate, rather in the same way that the arrangements of waltzes by Johann Strauss composed by Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern are affectionate while also being witty in their unconventional sonorities.
Listening to these selections, I found myself reminded of an album I bought while in secondary school, Frances Faye Sings Folk Songs. This was a time when middle-brow tastes tended to identify folk singing with groups like The Weavers; and, when I bought this album, I did not realize that Faye was a jazz and cabaret singer with a provocative taste for double entendres in her stylizing. It was a bit of a shock but an educational one, introducing me to how jazz could turn even the most familiar standards into “something completely different.” (Thanks to Faye, my first exposure to John Coltrane playing “My Favorite Things” was a walk in the park.)
I thus found myself listening to Songs America Loves To Sing while thinking, “Why should jazz improvisers and arrangers have all the fun?” Indeed, from the very opening notes of “Amazing Grace,” the first song in the set, it felt clear that “fun” was the operative noun in this project. The theme is elaborated through an ingenious combination of embellishments and sound effects, awakening a sense of nostalgia that is the polar opposite of Charles Ives’ aesthetic but is just as sincere.
The “songs of solitude” on the other hand are very much “songs without words.” However, while in the nineteenth century that phrase tended to denote the use of music to evoke responses normally associated with poetry, Four Songs of Solitude seems to be a study in the act of vocalization, perhaps the exercises of an individual in solitude with a desperate urge to break the surrounding silence. Whether or not this was the rhetorical stance that Harbison had in mind, Huang seems to have been particularly skilled at making these four short pieces sound as if they were being vocalized.
Four Songs of Solitude was composed in 1985; and, in spite of how the album has been arranged, it may well deserve listening prior to the 2013 string trio, because, almost 30 years later, Harbison still seems to be exploring the vocal qualities of performance on string instruments. Indeed, the very absence of a piano in this particular chamber music composition encourages the listener to listen to the three instruments in terms of vocal exchanges; and the ways in which Harbison shapes his melodic lines clearly suggests that those exchanges are sung, rather than spoken.
Thus, the entire album provides the listener with a truly unique approach to creating and performing chamber music that seems to have occupied Harbison for the better part of his career as a mature composer; and Camerata Pacifica’s approach to performing this music makes listening to it a total pleasure that encompasses an emotional spectrum from the delightfully cheerful to the introspectively serious.