There is an electric guitar on stage at Boston's Symphony Hall, and it is not a Pops concert.

John Harbison, © Katrin Talbot
John Harbison,
© Katrin Talbot

John Harbison's Symphony no. 5 for baritone, mezzo-soprano and orchestra up-ends what we think of as a symphony, presenting the voice as an instrument and recalibrating the form. In the program notes, Harbison remarks that listeners who do not pay close attention to the text before or during the performance are best qualified to measure the piece's success as a symphony, noting that “Every piece with singers and instruments should be coherent as a lucid sequence of sounds. These sounds, without reference to their verbal origins, aspire to a significant musical shape, something symphonic.” It goes on to say that the piece was originally conceived as an “orchestral meditation on loss.” It was former BSO music director James Levine who suggested including voice.

Harbison's symphony is based on poems by Czesław Miłosz, Louise Glück and Rainer Maria Rilke. It opens with a very Stravinskian sound, but quickly becomes its own piece, defying comparison.

The first two movements are based on the text from Orpheus and Eurydice by Polish Nobel Laureate Czesław Miłosz. The poem is in the third person, sung by the baritone. The setting of the poem departs from the myth, placing Orpheus on a flagstone sidewalk, facing a glass-panelled door to the underworld. Orpheus' harp is played by electric guitar, which suits the imagery of the poem and is given an other-worldy quality when paired with harp. The piece also calls for sandpaper blocks, which we hear as the shuffle of feet quietly following Orpheus as he ascends out of the underworld. In the glow of the exit sign, he turns to assure himself that Euridice is behind him, and sees nothing. When we look behind us for something we had, we lose the ability to see it as part of our experience in the presence.

The third movement is based on Louise Glück's Relic and sung by mezzo-soprano. In the myth, we do not hear from Eurydice, but this poem gives her a voice:

How would you like to die
While Orpheus was singing?
A long death: all the way to Dis
I heard him

The fourth movement is a translation of Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus, numbers 11 and 13. It is sung by both voices, weaving together the first three movements as in an epilogue. Where the first two movements verge on storytelling, with musical punctuation of physical occurrences, the third and fourth are the emotional undercurrents that sustain the Orpheus myth.

Boston Symphony is presenting all six Harbison symphonies this season. The sixth will have its world première in Boston in January. I had not seen the first four symphonies this season – it was Gerald Finley (baritone) and Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano) who caught my eye on the symphony's schedule. I first saw them as Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Doctor Atomic, by John Adams. Perhaps it was this frame of reference that made the symphony so visual for me. I read the composer's notes before the concert and tried to hear the poems as pure music, but failed. When I lost the train of the story (in the second movement), the music caught me up to speed. I can't help but wonder if the music would be equally vivid if it had been sung in the original Polish. I think it would be. The third and fourth movements felt more distilled to me. Where in the first two movements the music fit the text, it seemed in the second two that the poems were chosen to fit what the music had to say.

The second half of the program was Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, played by Jonathan Biss. This lyrical concerto was perfect after the Harbison – contemplative and exhilarating, as opposed to the meditative and brooding symphony. Beethoven's Leonore overture, in which the heroine does succeed in rescuing her loved one from death, was a perfect conclusion for the program.