A month-long celebration of John Harbison

Feb. brings many performances of composer's music
A month-long celebration of John Harbison
Photos courtesy of Sarah Schaffer
John Harbison and his wife Rose Mary put on the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival every year.

John Harbison turned 80 in December and the musical world is still celebrating the impressive catalog he’s created over his lifetime. Although Harbison is best known locally as co-founder, with wife and violinist Rose Mary Harbison, of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, we get a chance this month to sample Harbison’s achievements in nearly every genre.

As the list is considerable, we’ll confine ourselves to pertinent information. After all, any composer who has won a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship composes music that speaks for itself.

University of Wisconsin-Madison Memorial Library exhibit

The main lobby of the Memorial Library is hosting a month-long exhibit highlighting Harbison’s Madison connections, including works composed and premiered here; his new book on J.S. Bach; and his work at Token Creek.

Wisconsin Public Radio and WORT

Both radio stations will feature works of Harbison throughout the month, giving local music lovers a chance to hear many of Harbison’s larger works that aren’t being performed here this month, including his seven symphonies and three operas, such as “The Great Gatsby.” WPR has previously aired some of his compositions, which can be heard again here.

Wisconsin Union Theater

The acclaimed Imani Winds have included Harbison’s “Wind Quintet” in their program for Friday, Feb. 1 at 7:30 pm.

Madison Symphony Orchestra

In their concerts of Feb. 15, 16 and 17, the MSO under John DeMain will present Harbison’s tongue-in-cheek romp “The Most Often-Used Chords.” This hour-long, lighter, quartet piece is considered by this writer (who heard the world premiere in Los Angeles in 1993) unjustly neglected.

First Unitarian Society

The Noon Musicale this month at FUS brings the chamber music of Harbison. On Feb. 17 at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., there is Music for Sunday Worship. The Noon Musicale for Friday, Feb. 22 will feature the Mosaic Chamber Players playing the music of Harbison — joined by the Harbisons themselves.

Mead Witter School of Music (Mills Hall)

Perhaps the most highly anticipated event of Madison’s Harbison celebrations is the world premiere of his “Viola Sonata,” performed by Sally Chisholm of the Pro Arte Quintet. Harbison will be present for the concert, which will include more chamber music of his as well. This is a ticketed event that begins at 7:30 on Sunday, Feb. 17.

Harbison will also participate in composer-in-residency events at the Mead Witter School of Music, and several events will also feature readings and signings of his recent book, “What Do We Make of Bach: Portraits, Essays, Notes.”

Updated information on all these events can be found at tokencreekfestival.org and arsnovallc.com.

Greg Hettmansberger writes about jazz, opera and classical music for madisonmagazine.com.