Two contrasting concerts this month will exhibit the deeply personal and richly tonal works of classical music composer Amanda Harberg. The New Jersey native is known for her melodic and lyrical compositions arranged in energetic, playful rhythms.
The performances — a grand symphonic concert in Bergen County on May 5 and intimate chamber music in Gloucester County on May 7 — will spotlight the collaborations she has forged with some of the state’s regional organizations over the years.
“Music for me is all about connection,” she says. “To me, personal relationships are the most important and inspiring aspects of composing.”
The Ridgewood Symphony Orchestra will feature Harberg’s “Solis for Orchestra” complemented by Franz Joseph Haydn’s “Oxford Symphony” and Antonín Dvořák’s “Cello Concerto in B minor” with guest cellist Soo Bae. The concert takes place May 5 at West Side Presbyterian Church in Ridgewood.
The “Solis” title borrows from the Latin root in “solace” and alludes to the work’s vivid emotional landscape. It was inspired by an outdoor summer concert with the Philadelphia Orchestra that she attended in 1978, when she was 5. Mid-concert, the orchestra was interrupted by a thunderstorm during Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique Symphony.”
“The full force of the orchestra, punctuated by thunder and lightning, made me feel like I was surrounded by golden pillars of sound,” she writes in the concert’s program notes. The “golden pillars” form the brilliant, harmonic colors at the piece’s climax.
Harberg has found new meaning in the work since it premiered in 2015. “The more I hear the piece performed,” she says, “the more the overall structure of it reminds me of the early morning twilight giving way to a brilliant sunrise.”
Kyunghun Kim will be on the podium. The Seoul-born, New Jersey-based conductor was appointed artistic director of the 83-year-old orchestra in 2021.
Last year, he tapped Harberg as RSO’s composer-in-residence, one of his bold initiatives since taking over the role. The inaugural two-year residency was created to engage the orchestra’s surrounding northern New Jersey communities, to support new music and to demystify the role of the composer.
“Kyunghun and I have developed a wonderful collaboration throughout the performances of the past season, and I’m excited to work with him and the RSO,” she says.
Harberg works with up to 100 RSO musicians during rehearsals and speaks to its audiences before concerts of her works to share insights on her intentions and craft. RSO will mount six performances of her works and she will write a new composition exclusively for them before her tenure ends in 2024.
Kim chose “Solis” to counterbalance textures against the Dvořák-Haydn classical works.
“Kyunghun was interested in how the different thematic approaches in the Dvořák and in ‘Solis’ act as foils to one another,” Harberg says. “While they are both tonal and have strong elements of romanticism, they’re very different from each other in how they’re crafted.
“He pointed out that in its Rondo finale, the Dvořák uses many themes in delightfully capricious ways. By contrast, ‘Solis’ is mono-thematic. The thematic material is first heard in the solo trumpet against a gentle backdrop of strings. Gradually throughout the piece, the melody builds and unfolds into a triumphant climax in which the opening theme returns in full force, played by the entire orchestra.
“In programming, these contrasts can help energize the listeners and refresh their ears from piece to piece. Along these lines, the traditional Viennese classicism of the Haydn symphony offers additional contrasting elements through its musical style. And Haydn’s musical sense of humor is always a welcome addition to any program!”
The “Music of Amanda Harberg and Poulenc” concert on May 7, for Music at Bunker Hill, will draw on her special alliance with the organization. The chamber music series was founded in 2008 and organizes five concerts every season at Bunker Hill Presbyterian Church in Sewell.
Three of Harberg’s works will alternate with two selections by Francis Poulenc. Harberg will be on piano alongside a small group of solo musicians. “They’re a dream team,” she says. “Aside from being world-class players, they’re such lovely people and I’m thrilled to work with them.”
Four of the guest artists hold positions with the Philadelphia Orchestra: Erica Peel is piccoloist and flutist; Paul Demers is bass clarinetist and clarinetist; Philippe Tondre is principal oboist; and Jennifer Montone is principal hornist. Adrian Morejon will join the group as bassoonist and pianist Allison Brewster Franzetti will share piano parts with Harberg.
The program’s genesis is rooted in the woodwind-piano repertoire and a tribute to a new work by Harberg called “Crossroads,” a trio for piccolo/flute, clarinet and piano. It will open the concert in its world premiere.
Harberg and Peel have a longstanding collaboration. They perform frequently together as a duo, and Peel recently performed Harberg’s Piccolo Concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin on the Digital Stage series. ” ‘Crossroads’ was a piece that Erica and I had in mind as a way to help expand the piccolo repertoire,” Harberg says. “The work is brand new, with the final double bar line only a month old! We wanted to give this new work an energetic send-off into the world. Since it’s for woodwinds and piano, we decided to make the entire program focused on woodwind and piano music.” (Crossroads was composed in memory of Peel and Harberg’s mutual friend, Darryl J. Bott who was a life-changing music educator in New Jersey.)
Harberg adds that “while I am a pianist, I’ve always been drawn to the woodwind family — flute, piccolo, clarinet, bassoon, English horn, saxophone, etc. — in the music I compose. In the last decade or so, I’ve written prolifically for these wonderful instruments. The repertoire for woodwind instruments is often more limited than, say, violin or piano, and it feels very meaningful for me to contribute to their literature.”
The piece was commissioned by the concert’s underwriter, Kenneth Hutchins. Hutchins originally introduced Harberg to Music at Bunker Hill’s artistic director and co-founder, William Frampton. Frampton, a violist and a frequent player with string quartets, was enthusiastic to spotlight the woodwind-piano repertoire for the final concert of the 15th season.
“Ken is very active in the Philadelphia arts scene as a concertgoer and an overall friend to the arts,” Harberg says. “He has a long-standing relationship with Music at Bunker Hill. Ken felt that Bunker Hill would be a lovely venue to perform ‘Crossroads,’ along with other music I’ve composed. All three pieces were composed with the goal of expanding the repertoires for instruments that are in need of repertoire. All three are substantial and virtuosic, and give performers a challenge to sink their teeth into!”
The two other Harberg works on the program came about through collaborations with Morejon.
“My ‘Suite for Wind Quintet’ was commissioned by the Dorian Wind Quintet in 2017,” she says. “Adrian is the resident bassoonist with them. We had such a great time collaborating on my ‘Suite’ that Adrian later put together a large consortium commission for me to compose my ‘Bassoon Sonata.’ ”
Harberg’s pieces will alternate with Poulenc’s “Flute Sonata” and “Sextet for Winds and Piano.” She finds great affinity with the 20th century French composer recognized for his masterfully melodic works in curious, colorful arrangements often influenced by jazz and Neoclassicism.
“Poulenc’s music had a large influence on my work,” she says. “Right now, I’m playing lots of it and I’m finding myself learning from the playful and unexpected ways in which he uses localized contrasts, as well as his jazz-influenced harmonic approach.”
Harberg’s passion and curiosity for music began at an early age. Her parents weren’t musicians but were very supportive of her musical interests and began taking her to concerts as a child.
“When I was about 5 years old, my grandmother purchased a 25-cent guitar with five strings for me at a yard sale that I loved using to improvise my musical ideas,” she says. “I began begging my parents for a piano around this age. I’ll never forget the excitement I had as a 7-year-old child when the moving truck brought over my grandmother’s old upright. I would make up pieces at the piano and write them down in home-made notation systems.
“I got my first serious piano teacher when I was about 14 years old. She showed me the discipline necessary if one is to be serious about music. Throughout middle school and high school, I rented instruments — flute, oboe, violin, viola — over the summers and loved to figure out how they worked. I still use my old beat-up flute to play through all my woodwind music when I’m editing phrasing and dynamics.”
Her teenage years ushered in a discovery of innovative works by Bartók, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Messiaen. She developed an appreciation of jazz through the piano and saxophone.
When she’s not composing, she is teaching during the school year as professor of composition at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts and during the summer as Composition Instructor at the Interlochen Arts Camp.
She lives in Glen Ridge with her husband, documentary filmmaker Micah Fink, and their two teenagers.
Her summer will be full of musical milestones. Highlights include world premieres of her works: two at the National Flute Convention and one at the International Tuba Euphonium Conference. Her works will be performed at numerous classical music festivals across the United States, including Newport Classical and the Moab Music Festival in Utah this summer.
“I’m also eager to spend six weeks at the beautiful and inspiring Interlochen Arts Camp in Northern Michigan, where I’ll teach music composition,” she says. “My teenager, Sydney, will study bassoon in the orchestra program.”
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