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Harbison follows a jazz train of thought

Composer John Harbison (right) rehearsing with singer Jason McStoots at Harbison’s home in Cambridge. Composer John Harbison (right) rehearsing with singer Jason McStoots at Harbison’s home in Cambridge. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Joan Anderman
Globe Staff / September 16, 2009

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Classical music composer John Harbison has won the Pulitzer Prize, earned the highest rank of Institute Professor at MIT, and led the esteemed Boston ensemble Emmanuel Music. He has not, however, over the course of a half-century crafting operas, symphonies, concerti, and a reputation of international renown, ever scored a gig at Scullers Jazz Club - until this week. Wednesday night, Harbison and a mix of jazz and classical musicians will present After Hours, a benefit concert for Emmanuel Music featuring art songs, jazz tunes, and one tears-in-your-beer country ballad written by Harbison “in the margins’’ over the past 30 years.

How little-known is the finger-snapping side of Harbison’s musical life?

“I do think some people will be surprised,’’ says the composer, in signature low-key fashion. “At the end of graduate school I made a kind of formal retirement in my mind.’’

That was 46 years ago.

Harbison is speaking by phone from his farm outside Madison, Wis., where he and his wife, Rose Mary, spend late summers directing the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival. It was there that Harbison formed a jazz group several years ago, after a decades-long sabbatical from popular music, and that ensemble will join members of Emmanuel Music at Scullers.

Which begs the question: Why now?

“Lately jazz has become more important to me because I’ve felt the need to experience that kind of performing, and also because I need it more in the foreground for the other work I do,’’ says Harbison, one of Boston’s foremost contemporary architects of classical music and a favorite of Boston Symphony Orchestra music director James Levine. “A certain kind of relationship to the way I follow a train of thought has been changing. I need to get it back.’’

Jazz and other popular idioms have long been recognized as influential in Harbison’s work. When he was a teenager, Bach and Louis Armstrong were equal protagonists in his life. Then, in the summer of 1959, the Harvard undergrad made a fateful choice: Offered scholarships to Tanglewood (to study conducting) and the short-lived but eminent Lenox School of Jazz (the year Ornette Coleman famously showed up), Harbison chose Tanglewood.

But he’s been writing songs ever since, and the set list for Wednesday’s show draws from work both well-known and obscure. Harbison wrote two new songs for the concert, featuring lyrics by a pair of Pulitzer Prize-winning writers: poet Louise Glück and music critic/poet Lloyd Schwartz.

“Both texts just sort of shouted what they wanted,’’ says Harbison. When Glück (whose words Harbison has set to music before) sent him “Stand by your Grievance,’’ Harbison heard a country song. “I really like a Loretta Lynn sob story, and Louise has a very crusty sense of humor that pops up in the strangest moments,’’ he says. Armed with stanzas such as: “They told me dirty footprints were the hallmark of a heel/They told me if I gave my love/That I would have to deal/With footprints baked into my heart/That never would come clean/Despite the soapsuds of my sorrow/And the brillo of my pain;’’ it’s no wonder Harbison was inspired to pen a tough, weepy ballad.

Of Schwartz’s text, which opens with the lines “Strange, strange as it seems/You’re in my dreams/Still in my dreams/Day, day turns to night/And every night/You fill my dreams,’’ it was ties and tails, Harbison says. “Fred Astaire all the way. My songwriting ethic would probably be much more comfortable in 1945. The songs I admire most are from the jazz period, songs with tremendously rich and inventive vocabulary and melodic curve, criteria which have much in common with the great Lieder period. I’ve never had any reluctance to say a great modern song requires the same skills as a Schubert song.’’

Schwartz, who has known Harbison for 30 years, says that while it’s quite unusual for an established composer to shift gears after so many years, he understands the impulse.

“It makes perfect sense to me that something he cared about, that he isn’t identified with, might be something he would want to go back to and see from 70,’’ says Schwartz. “Going back to a time when his career was just beginning and he hadn’t won the awards and the recognition, that could be a very profound thing. He’s a person with a lot of humility, which is rare in the upper echelon of the arts world.’’

He’s also a genuine lover of popular music, which comes as no surprise to soprano Dawn Upshaw. Upshaw has performed many of Harbison’s works, including the role of Daisy in his Jazz Age-infused 1999 opera “The Great Gatsby,’’ a commission by the Metropolitan Opera in honor of James Levine’s 25th anniversary there.

“I knew there were other things, but the closest I’ve gotten [to his popular music] is what John wrote for ‘Gatsby,’ ’’ Upshaw says. “I wonder if the pressures of the music business itself has kept these little secrets hidden for many composers. Contemporary music has gone through some difficult periods of searching for individual, original voices, and there’s this fear, perhaps, of divulging that other side. It seems many people believe that it creates muddy waters. It makes me really happy to hear that he’s sharing these songs. I’m sure I’m going to want to get my hands on them.’’

Jason McStoots, a tenor with Emmanuel Music who will be performing at Scullers, was tipped off to Harbison’s nonclassical leanings several years ago during a vocal warmup, when Harbison began adding all sorts of jazzy, colorful harmonies on the piano to get his singers from one pitch to the next. He believes that Emmanuel’s audience will receive Harbison’s songs like a breath of air.

“The music we do week to week is intensely beautiful and spiritual and almost always serious,’’ says McStoots. “Jazz can be serious but it has an incredible capacity for playfulness in a way the music we do does not. I think it will be fun, which you can’t always say about concerts.’’

Harbison concedes that, for all their skill and artistry, Emmanuel singers will have to stretch to step from the button-down world of Bach cantatas into the looser terrain of jazz and pop - and from churches and concert halls into a nightclub. It may prove something of a leap for the listeners, as well. When Harbison introduced surveys of composers like Harold Arlen, Count Basie, and Hoagy Carmichael into the Token Creek repertoire in 2003, “I had the apparently over-enthusiastic belief that there would be a lot of crossover in the audience. In fact a small percentage goes to both. I know there are the same questions about the Symphony and the Pops audience. It doesn’t happen anywhere, and it’s a big mystery to me. If I knew why I could stop composing and go into marketing.’’

But there is, according to Harbison, a fundamental crossover in the music, and when he’s working with the Emmanuel musicians Harbison makes frequent analogies to jazz. For instance, playing continuo - a type of Baroque-era musical notation that requires improvising chords above a single line of music - is a skill that in many ways resembles playing in a rhythm section, Harbison says.

“In both there’s a strong improvisational willingness,’’ he says. “You’ve got to be very brave.’’

Joan Anderman can be reached at anderman@globe.com.

AFTER HOURS A concert to benefit Emmanuel Music, is Wednesday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $75 and $150 at www.emmanuelmusic.org.

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