News Column

Harbach's 'Jubilee Symphony' celebrates UMSL's 50th anniversary

October 6, 2013


Oct. 06--Barbara Harbach says she feels as though she's "come into Nirvana" as a composer since arriving at the University of Missouri-St. Louis a decade ago. Unlike the other places she and her husband, UMSL chancellor Thomas F. George have lived and worked, she has colleagues in St. Louis who are interested in her music and happy to perform it.

That makes it entirely appropriate that Harbach was tapped to write a symphony celebrating the 50th anniversary of the university's founding. The "Jubilee Symphony," her fifth, has its premiere Wednesday at the Touhill Performing Arts Center.

After living in small towns like Pullman, Wash., and Stevens Point and Oshkosh, Wis., all of which lacked a critical mass of instrumentalists and singers, Harbach says the vibrant artistic scene in St. Louis was a delight.

She cites the "wonderful colleagues, musicians and artists that I interact with," from the Equinox Chamber Players to soprano Stella Markou and members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. "Over the last 10 years, it's been fun just getting to know people. They're interested in an obscure composer's music. They're willing to do it."

Harbach, 67, started as an organist and harpsichordist, teaching along the way. She began composing when she had a church job in Rochester, N.Y. "I was trying to choose music for my choir. I was in the music store, going through piles of music, and not finding anything. Finally, I left the store saying, 'I can write music this bad.' I started writing for the organ, then choral music, then for other instruments."

While she's written an opera, music for theater and four other symphonies, her most prolific field is still chamber music, for a simple reason: "It's easier to get a chamber group together than an orchestra or an opera company."

Harbach has a long shelf of recordings to her name: 53 as a performer on keyboard instruments, and eight of some of her original compositions. More shelves could be devoted to the music that she's edited (56 editions), to the articles she's written and the journal she edited from 1993 to 2003, "WomenArts Quarterly."

Harbach's music is unabashedly tonal. In a field where that's considered old-fashioned and unfashionable, has that cost her hearings? "Yes," she says. "But there are different kinds of music for different types of people. If you don't like aggressively atonal music, you might like mine -- and vice versa.

"I do a lot of meter changes, I do a lot of key changes," she says. "It's challenging; it's not nearly as accessible to (student musicians) as Haydn. It's complex. I like to write countermelodies. It doesn't happen in traditional music."

Still, she adds, "I like melodies. I'm a neo-Romantic, part of the new beauty in music that we're hearing about. It's appealing to people, and if you're listening carefully, you can go out remembering the tune," as you can with the music of Aaron Copland and Howard Hanson.

Asked if being a woman has hurt her, Harbach is more circumspect. "It's always a good question. I don't know. I'm always called a 'woman composer.' You never hear 'a male composer.'" She plays music for her students and asks them to guess the composer's gender. "If they don't know Chopin, they say it's by a woman," because of its emotion.

Harbach likes to do her composing early in the morning: "I'm definitely a 7 a.m. type of person when I'm writing." In addition to the "Jubilee Symphony," her most recent project has been to prepare her earlier four symphonies for a recording project, fixing all the little mistakes that creep into a large score. She'll fly to Britain this month to record them with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The recordings should be available early next year.

The "Jubilee Symphony," she says, "kind of wrote itself. The first movement is called 'From Bellerive,' because (the site) was a country club, the Bellerive Country Club. The university used the clubhouse; music was taught in a dry cleaner's down the road. It's a remarkable place."

She calls the first movement "a conversation." "The university has something like 27 different municipalities that touch it; (the founders) had to get permission from all of them. It's a conversation between instruments, some agreeing, some disagreeing.

"The second movement is something unique to UMSL: the Mirth Day Fiesta. It's a celebration of all ethnicities and cultures that we do here. It's a festival, a carnival, with a gala atmosphere. There are Latin American rhythms in there. It's almost like having a little mariachi band inside the orchestra, for a little toe-tapping."

The final movement tells the story of Triton, messenger of the Greek gods, and UMSL's mascot. The total running time is about 17 minutes.

As the urge to ugliness continues to recede in the classical music world, Harbach is receiving more recognition for her work. "Atonal music made people walk out of the concert halls, and we're trying desperately to woo 'em back. We can convert them if we can just get them in."

{hr /}'Jubilee Symphony'

When --7:30 p.m. Wednesday

Where --Touhill Performing Arts Center, University of Missouri-St. Louis

How much --Free

More info or 314-516-4949


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