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Barbara Harbach

Composer/Performer

Barbara Harbach

1. Do you prefer to be known as a composer/performer or a performer/composer?

An interesting question, since my emphasis has changed over my career. The first half of my career was as performer/composer - performer on organ/harpsichord/piano, a recording artist (Gasparo, Naxos), editor of historical women composers (producing the first modern editions of 18th century women keyboard composers), and teaching music courses at various universities (history, women in music, theory, and applied organ/piano/harpsichord). Many years I performed up to 100 recitals a year, nationally and internationally.

The second half of my career became composer/performer as I discovered that I had a "voice" that I enjoyed developing. While teaching at various universities in small towns (Pullman WA, Oshkosh WI, and Stevens Point WI), there were fewer external distractions so I could write music and more music, but there was little opportunity to have my music performed. So, I just composed and wrote music, producing a portfolio of music that was yet to be performed. When I arrived in St. Louis, MO, I found outstanding musicians who wanted to perform my music, and it was a delight to hear pieces that I had written earlier come to life in performance and recording.

I still enjoy performing on harpsichord and organ, but I now have more interest in writing music. Each year I seem to write more and more music.

2. As a composer, what is your favorite medium to write for and why?

Since I was essentially self-taught, I started writing music that I was most familiar with - organ music, harpsichord and choral anthems. I felt more comfortable as a composer with styles that I had played all my life. I slowly branched out to include sonatas for solo instruments - trumpet, violin, and viola - and evolved to more elaborate ensembles such as woodwind quintet, brass quartet and string orchestra. I wrote two symphonies that were commissioned and recorded, and then fell in love with the sound of the string orchestra and wrote many pieces for that ensemble. I was fortunate to have a CD of my string orchestra pieces recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of David Angus (MSR 1258). That was quite a thrill. I am now into writing symphonies and large chamber ensembles. I have completed two symphonies and will do two more this year, with a recording planned for all four this fall, 2013.

I will always have a special place for string orchestra - the homogenous sound, the ability to portray intricate rhythms, complex harmonies, and various moods from plaintive to exuberant. Strings can sound like the human voice, delicate and lost as well as noble and majestic.

Barbara Harbach

3. Do you like the recording process as a composer and, if so, why? If not, why?

I just finished a recording session for eleven performers and conductor with Richard Price of Candlewood Digital, CT, and it went very well. As the composer, I was a wreck, although we put down about 38 minutes of music in five hours. Richard has such a fine-tuned ear and a great way of talking with the musicians, that he gets the absolute best performances from the players! The performers always talk about what a great experience it is working with Richard. That recording will be on my forthcoming Chamber IV with MSR Classics.

As a composer, I am soooo nervous just sitting and listening to the taping sessions since I have very little to do. On the other hand, as a performer, I am actively involved in the sessions, and feel I have some control over many technical and musical issues. When I taped my Chamber II CD in one day with the Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra, I was absolutely euphoric after the taping was over, and I felt like I was walking two feet off the ground. I called my husband back in the USA and said, "Yea! The taping is over!!!!"

4. How was recording your music with the London Philharmonic different than recording with the Slovak Radio Symphony? They're both fine orchestras, but how do they differ?

Both are excellent orchestras, and I thoroughly enjoyed my experiences with both of them. Working with the SRS was my first experience recording with an orchestra. Kirk Trevor was the conductor, and since I did not understand the language, he was very helpful in bridging questions between the orchestra and me. I would call the SRS a "red light" or recording orchestra. At the first run through of my symphony Veneration for Orchestra, the performers were rather relaxed and unconcerned about accuracy and tempo. I was about ready to fold my music and slink home. Then Trevor called for the "red light" to begin recording. It was a different orchestra now, primed and ready to go! Every musician snapped to attention and the recording went very smoothly.

Barbara Harbach - Music For Strings The London Philharmonic Orchestra with David Angus as conductor was a dream recording, although I was nearly out-of-it with a serious sinus infection. How I flew to London I will never know - I could not hear for the first two days that I was in London due to plugged ears, and luckily, we were working with the orchestra's librarian on the scores, so my hearing was not yet necessary. As questions arose about correct pitches from the musicians during the recording, the conductor and engineers tried to conjecture on what might be the correct notes. Finally one of the string players said, "Isn't the composer here?" Since most orchestral recordings feature compositions from the past without a composer present, a contemporary composer may be the least important component.

5. How do you choose the soloists for the recordings of such works as Frontier Fancies for violin and orchestra, Rhapsody Jardine for oboe and string orchestra, or the Eliza and Lizzie movement of Freedom Suite for strings?

For the recording of Frontier Fancies, Kirk Trevor suggested Frantisek Novotný as violin soloist, and sent me several clips to audition. He was terrific! Then for an oboist for Rhapsody Jardine, I had recorded and performed with Cynthia Green Libby at Missouri State University for many years, and I knew her oboe sound was exactly what I had in mind.

For the solo quintet movement in Demarest Suite, David Angus (conductor of the LPO) suggested Vesselin Gellev, Clare Duckworth, Robert Duncan, Susanne Beer and Kevin Dundell - a marvelous quintet! The Morning Trumpet from Two Songs from the Sacred Harp and Eliza and Lizzie from Freedom Suite both had Vesselin Gelley as violin soloist.

6. Many of your pieces are programmatic or tell a story. What draws you to such subjects as Willa Cather in One of Ours, or the Freedom Suite?

I am drawn to and inspired by strong individuals, especially women like author Willa Cather (One of Ours, a Cather Symphony) and activist Harriet Scott. Harriet Scott, with her husband Dred Scott, pursued a dream of freedom for their daughters, and through their court appeals, which were denied in the Supreme Court, helped catapult the United States into the Civil War. Their struggle for civil liberties inspired the creation of Freedom Suite for String Orchestra and Harriet's Story for soprano, violin and piano. The latter will be released by MSR Classics later this year.

Willa Cather's O Pioneers! was the inspiration for my opera of the same name. It is a wonderful story of immigrants settling Nebraska. The story has everything - young love, adultery, murder, and love found later in life.

Pioneer Women: from Skagway to White Mounted for soprano, clarinet and piano was inspired by reading the diaries and journals of the women who helped settle Alaska. What adventurous and courageous women!

Silent films have always been a favorite genre of mine. Alice Guy Blaché (1873-1968), a French pioneer filmmaker and the first female director in the motion picture industry, directed Making an American Citizen in 1913. It is the story of an immigrant couple coming to America. The focus of the film was domestic abuse and how to change the abuser. I went against the usual orchestration sound and scored the film for string quartet. Strings are capable of portraying a wide range of emotion, from tenderness to cacophony.

Another film by Blaché was the 1913 film, A House Divided, which I scored for mixed chamber ensemble. I also was intrigued by the 39-minute Hungarian silent film Judit Simon - a film of social classes and abuse of power - also scored for mixed chamber ensemble.

7. Is there a special orchestral project you haven't yet realized, but would like to someday?

At present, I am working on completing two symphonies to go with the two already written: A State Divided: a Missouri Symphony and Jubilee Symphony. We hope to record all four this fall. I'm also on the lookout for a good libretto - another opera would be a great challenge.

8. Do you like the recording process as a performer and, if so, why? If not, why?

The recording session for a harpsichordist/organist is the capstone of unmentionable hours of practice! There is a light at the end of a long tunnel, finally, an ending to the never-ending rehearsals. As a soloist, I have control of tempo, accuracy, phrase shapings, musicality and nuance. Last July I finished the last 26 of 120 sonatas of Antonio Soler to complete a 12 CD set of the Rubio edition of the Soler sonatas. Preparations for the taping required 8-10 hours of practice a day for about two-and-a-half months. It was a marathon of practicing, tuning and regulating the harpsichord!

In an ensemble recording, most musical and technical issues are in the hands of the conductor and the quixoticisms of the players. I always enjoy listening to other performers and conductors interpret my pieces, and I often learn some things about my music that had not occurred to me.

9. As a performer, specifically as a harpsichordist, you've recently recorded 6 Concertos for Harpsichord by Thomas Haigh (1769-c.1808) and a CD of 20th Century Harpsichord Music by contemporary composers Daniel Pinkham and Arnold Rosner. What draws you to this repertoire? What do you have to do differently to record Haigh, as opposed to Rosner and Pinkham?

I started my recording career with Bach (Goldberg Variations, Art of the Fugue, Preludes and Fugues) and other traditional repertoire as many performers do, since proving oneself as an interpreter of the traditional lends credibility to other, perhaps more unusual, choices of repertoire. I have always had an affinity towards contemporary composition, even before I began composing seriously myself. I have done a series of publications for Vivace Press of commissioning, publishing and recording the works of various composers. Some of my favorites include Arnold Rosner, Samuel Adler, Vincent Persichetti, Emma Lou Diemer, Vivian Fine, Michael Isaacson, Edith Borroff, Samuel Jones, Gardner Read, Robert Stern, Michael Rose and Mary Jane Van Appledorn.

Barbara Harbach- MSR CD400 In some ways, the performer is part of the compositional process in contemporary music. Often there is more liberty with rubato and interpretation as in Rosner's Musique de Clavecin - an exciting and outrageous piece for the harpsichord, utilizing sounds and techniques not often found in harpsichord repertoire. On the other hand, recording an 18th century piece such as the 6 Concertos by Haigh requires a knowledge of the performance practices of the times - how to interpret ornaments, tempos, and correct the score for incorrect notes and notation.

10. You're also renowned for your organ performances and recordings. How does the recording process differ for the two instruments?

When recording on harpsichord, tuning and re-tuning the instrument takes almost as much time as the recording process itself! A harpsichordist has to become proficient at replacing strings, plectra, regulating the touch, and taking care of the quirks of the instrument such as a buzz somewhere on the sounding board that cannot be found. Since the harpsichord has a small and delicate sound, the microphone is placed close to the strings so you can hear the jacks fall, and it can be recorded in a small hall or room. I have used my 1987 Willard Martin two-manual French harpsichord for most of my tapings.

Several considerations have to be taken into account when taping an organ: the quality of the organ itself; the acoustics of the hall; how much outside noise is apparent; and the tuning of the organ. When all the components come together, it is a marvelous sound and recording.

11. You've also recorded Harpsichord Sonatas by Anna Bon di Venezia (c. 1740-1767). What drew you to recording her work - was it the music itself, or her little-known life, or a combination of the two?

Early in my career, I felt compelled to recover historical women composers whose manuscripts were languishing in libraries and attics. Anna Bon was one of these composers. In the mid-1980s I went to the British Library in London and began my search for 18th century women composers. What a wealth of material! I ordered many manuscripts and waited months for the microfilm to arrive. This began my recording and publications of Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Elizabeth Weichsell Billington, Elizabeth Hardin, Elisabetta de Gambarini, Cecilia Barthelemon, Maria Hester Park, Elizabeth Turner, and my favorite - A Lady. Since it was not culturally acceptable or proper for women to have their name in print, many opted for anonymity.

12. Tell us about some of the instruments you've recorded on?

One of my favorite organs is in St. Louis at Christ Church Cathedral, a marvelous, large Aeolian-Skinner organ where I recorded my Celebration of Hymns CD (MSR 1254). Another favorite is the Fisk organ at the Downtown United Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY where I recorded the Art of Fugue. I have favorite organs but for varying reasons, such as the Katedraina Crkva Velike Gospe, Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in Croatia, where I had to wind around a rope to get up to the organ. It was not too difficult going up hanging on to the rope while toting a large purse and brief case, but navigating down took a lot of prayer! I have had some interesting experiences where I was the first woman to play a particular organ, and another time, after I arrived in a small village in Italy, I was refused access to the organ and had to adapt the organ recital to the piano because I was a woman.

13. What does the future hold for Barbara Harbach as a composer and performer?

I look forward to finishing my two symphonies and recording all four in the near future. I have several ensemble commissions, but most of all, I look forward to many new challenges and opportunities that I could not possibly anticipate or predict!

Barbara Harbach

Recordings of Barbara Harbach on MSR Classics - http://www.msrcd.com/

Music of Barbara Harbach - Chamber Music IV - Volume 8. MSR Classics 1258, Fall 2013
Music of Barbara Harbach - Music for Strings with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Volume 7. MSR Classics 1258, December 2011
Music of Barbara Harbach - Chamber Music III - Reeds, Brass, Strings, Harpsichord & Piano,
Volume 6. MSR Classics 1257, October 2010
Music of Barbara Harbach - Vocal Music, Soprano, Winds, Strings, Harp, Trumpet & Piano,
Volume 5. MSR Classics 1256, October 2009
Music of Barbara Harbach - Chamber Music II, String Orchestra, Ensemble & Woodwind Quintet,
Volume 4. MSR Classics 1255, March 2009
Organ Music of Barbara Harbach - Toccatas, Flourishes and Fugues on Familiar Hymn Tunes, Vol. 3, MSR Classics 1254, Newtown, CT 2008
Orchestra Music of Barbara Harbach - Symphony, Reverie & Rhapsody, Vol. 1,MSR Classics 1252, Newtown, CT 2007
Chamber Music of Barbara Harbach - Ensemble, String Quartet & Woodwind Quintet, Vol. 2, MSR Classics 1253, Newtown, CT 2007

Antonio Soler, 120 Sonatas for Harpsichord, MSR Classics, Fall 2013
Thomas Haigh, Six Concertos for Harpsichord, Opus 1, MSR Classics 1441, Newtown, CT, 2012
Rosner/Pinkham, 20th Century Harpsichord Music, MSR Classics 1443, Newtown, CT, 2012

Visit Barbara at http://www.barbaraharbach.com/.

 

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