Live Music: Jonathan Harvey Composer Portrait

Isenheim altarpiece

It has been over 200 years since Haydn represented chaos in his oratorio Die Schöpfung via dynamics, orchestration and harmonic motion; commonplace elements during the Classical era. It’s now been 100 years since the beginnings of Modernism in music, and the parallel development of a new virtuosity in instrumental playing, two lines that are still lengthening. With new ideas and new skills come new ways of making sound, and presenting ideas.

British composer Jonathan Harvey, the subject of Thursday night’s Composer Portrait at Miller Theatre, expresses ideas in sound in a way that is both old-fashioned and modern, a statement easy to accept if your view of Modernism is that its time has passed. It’s a cultural idea that, once thought, remains with us, just as the counterpoint of the Baroque and the emotional truth of Romanticism are available to all composers.

Harvey is a proponent of Modernism freed from strict formal and tonal values. His structures are rigorous but organic and serve what is clearly a fervent expressive idea from moment to moment, section to section. His music is variously tonal, dissonant, microtonal and entirely involved with timbre. His sound gives us an idea of his thinking, but its primary focus is on what he’s feeling.

Whether we feel the same thing or not depends on our sympathies with his peripatetic spirituality. The two works on the program, performed by Ensemble Signal and conductor Bradley Lubman, explored Christian and Hindu mysticism, seemingly disparate ideas that had previously been synthesized by Olivier Messiaen, whose influence is clear on Harvey, just as they had been in more extreme fashion by Giacinto Sclesi, who also appears in moments in Harvey’s work.

Death of Light/Light of Death, completed in 1998, is directly inspired by Mathias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, and it’s five movements follow figures in the artwork: “Jesus Crucified,” “Mary Magdalene,” “Mary, Mother of Jesus,” “John the Apostle” and “John The Baptist” It’s scored for oboe doubling English horn, harp, violin, viola and cello, and despite the chamber size is sufficiently complex to require a conductor. It’s ascetic, obsessive, and demands personal sympathy. Harvey’s language and purpose is clear, from the abrading strings and oboe multi-phonics and slides in the first movement, the graceful microtonality of the harp in the second, and the formal repetition in the finale that brings a sense of resolution. The piece is a clear parallel to Hadyn’s Seven Last Words oF Jesus Christ, but directly emotional, the sounds standing in for Harvey’s feelings. But where Haydn can be admired in the abstract, for how the form and style work together, Harvey is sharing an experience the listener may or may not be sympathetic to, or, even in as fine a performance as the musicians gave, may not fully convey the weight and power of the subject, the sense of mystery, as Bruckner does in his expansive expressions of the mystery of his faith. Harvey’s intensity is hermetic.

The long Bhakti, from 1982, is more extroverted but still intensely personal, with Harvey’s own notes indicating a connection to the Rig Veda and thoughts of transcendence. This is one of the earliest works spawned from IRCAM in Paris, and is written for a chamber orchestra and accompanying electronic sounds. It’s very much of its time, with bright and brittle FM synthesis scattered throughout the audio, a 12-tone (but not atonal) structure, and a section that is an explicit homage to Messiaen. It’s about an hour long, and is full of colors, textures and rhythms, and the acoustic and electronic music is tightly and expressively integrated, with the musicians playing off the tape to create psychoacoustic effects. But like the first piece, the response depends on an affinity with Harvey’s mysticism. He puts groups of instruments in opposition, stretching away from each other around the same pitch, as Scelsi does, but where Scelsi pushes at it until he’s cracked his way into a new dimension, Harvey is satisfied with creating the sound, then moving on to the next idea. The piece is both restless and static, and where Death of Light doesn’t have enough material to fill its dimensions, Bhakti is overflowing with ideas, but doesn’t have a clear and organized place to put them all. The program notes, adapted by Paul Griffith from Harvey’s own writing, offered information without illumination.

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