Madison celebrates John Harbison, a source of great music

Composer's 80th birthday inspires musical tributes
Madison celebrates John Harbison, a source of great music

John Harbison is best known locally for hosting the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival at the family farm of his wife, Rose Mary, each summer for the past 29 years. But Madison-area chamber music fans ought to know that Harbison is a much bigger deal outside our corner of the world.

When the festival is not underway, Harbison is not likely to be found here. He has spent most of his life in Boston. In fact, he still teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There, professor Harbison has earned a sterling reputation through his composition of seven symphonies, 12 concertos, six string quartets, the opera “The Great Gatsby” and many other works. Throw in a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship, and Harbison has a catalogue of achievements few composers can match.

Now Madison joins numerous cities, including Boston, in celebrating Harbison’s enduring legacy and continuing creativity — and none too soon, as Harbison recently turned 80. The crown jewel of local events will be the world premiere of Harbison’s “Viola Sonata,” to be performed by Sally Chisholm and Timothy Lovelace. Chisholm is a veteran member of the Madison-based Pro Arte Quartet, which premiered Harbison’s “String Quartet No. 5” in 2012. The Feb. 17 event will feature a stimulating medley of works by Harbison and composers he admires, particularly Bach and Haydn.

That same weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra will perform “The Most Often Used Chords,” an unjustly neglected small work of Harbison’s. It is a highly crafted work full of whimsy. The creation was triggered by Harbison’s perusal of a guide on the inside of a music notebook.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison will be honoring Harbison throughout February. An exhibit on display all month at the Memorial Library will focus on Harbison and his career. The first performance of Harbison’s music will be of “Wind Quintet” by the Imani Winds, Feb. 1 at the Union Theater. And Harbison will take up a one-week residency at UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music to coach students in composition.

As of this writing, other major events are being finalized, principally a Harbison festival at the First Unitarian Society that likely will include recitals, a jazz cabaret, his church service music and a reading from his recent book “What Do We Make of Bach?”

You can include Harbison in your travel plans, too: The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will play his “Violin Sonata” on May 9, and his work “IF,” based on Friedrich Hölderlin’s poem “If from the Distance,” will be performed at this summer’s Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.

Greg Hettmansberger covers the jazz, opera and classical music scenes for Madison Magazine and