John Harbison is a pillar of Boston’s musical establishment thanks to a body of work that has garnered the Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur Fellowship and commissions from leading orchestras as well as the Metropolitan Opera.
His six symphonies are a gateway into his varied and richly textured style, and in recent years the Boston Symphony Orchestra has performed the complete cycle. The Boston Philharmonic and conductor Benjamin Zander have also feted Harbison, performing his first two symphonies. Saturday night at Jordan Hall, Zander and company took on Symphony No. 3 in celebration of the composer’s eightieth birthday.
Harbison’s Third is a stirring psychological journey from depression to exuberance. Yet the music is never free of turbulence. Its five movements, which span twenty-three minutes, brim with urgency and emotional intensity. As Zander stated, the work is about how one deals with the ups and downs of life.
The first movement unfolds from sighing gestures to volleys of dense cluster chords. A martial middle movement features a colorful percussion section, which churns out a driving rhythm. (Harbison dedicated the symphony to Christopher Rouse, a composer known for his ebullient percussion writing.) The fourth movement, with its lonesome violin melodies, is eerily beautiful. Harbison is a well-known jazz musician, and jazz finds its way into the piece, though not in a literal way. In the finale, bristly sonorities sway against each other like memories of a swinging dance band.
Memory, too, forms the locus of the second movement, entitled Nostalgico, where a theme emulating church bells of Sant’Ilario in Genoa, Italy, haunts the music like a ghost. Cellos and winds supply a dusky counterpoint, tipping the music towards darkness.
The symphony could have had no better advocate than Zander. Leading with brisk gestures, he conjured playing of power and intensity to make a strong case for an important work by one of Boston’s most significant musical citizens.
Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which filled out the first half of the concert, remains a staple of pops concerts. But its frequent performances have added a great deal of fat to the lithe piece. Too many pianists treat Gershwin’s lyrical lines with heavy doses of rubato.
Kevin Cole, thankfully, isn’t one of them. In his performance of the work Saturday night, he conjured keyboard lines of crystalline precision and rhythmic punch while casting the memorable melodies of this piece in flowing arcs of sound. His rubato shading was tasteful and never overdone.
Zander led a propulsive accompaniment that kept the music’s bold orchestration crackling. Cole matched the orchestra’s enthusiasm in the cascading passages that pepper the writing for piano.
For an encore, he rendered a Gershwin medley with fiery energy and poetic grace.
Fine playing also marked Saturday’s performance of Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Zander has a keen eye for programmatic works, and Stravinsky’s blazing ballet score, which was accompanied by dance scenes projected on an overhead screen, came off as the vivid storytelling piece that it is.
The conductor kept the work’s disparate sections flowing gracefully even as the music’s cross rhythms clashed like fragments in a Picasso. The Philharmonic’s playing was firm and muscular, with gleaming contributions from strings and winds. Elmer Churampi’s brilliant trumpet solo in the ballerina’s dance was flavored with a touch of lyricism. The tuba galumphed appropriately in the scene with the dancing bear, and concertmaster Joanna Kurkowicz’s violin solos went with rustic verve. The ballet’s many folk dances had equal parts lift and weight. Stravinsky, like Gershwin, could set a groove.