John Harbison has called his Second Symphony an “experiment in non-explicit scene painting”, a hybrid of the tone poem and the symphony in four parts, charting the progression from Dawn to Darkness with Daylight and Dusk in between. Representations of the diurnal transitions are familiar tropes in classical music and primarily positive (nightfall being the ambiguous outlier). Not so Harbison’s day, which unfolds without interruption, ratcheting up the tension as the day progresses, and ends in something of an annihilating nervous breakdown.

John Harbison following the performance of his Second Symphony © Hilary Scott
John Harbison following the performance of his Second Symphony
© Hilary Scott

Under Sir Andrew Davis, Harbison’s sun crests the horizon of a city of the overstimulated, stressed and stretched to the limit. Dawn provides a brief moment of peace with its opening tolls, chimes, and fanfares, but its timid light eventually turns out to be illusory as Daylight breaks with its scurrying strings and scything cross-rhythms transforming a symphonic scherzo into a distressing portrait of the proverbial rat-race. Dusk is appropriately muted and crepuscular, almost a lullaby at times under Davis’ direction, as it slackens the tension somewhat, but Night, marked Inesorabile, offers little respite. Harbison initially conceived it as a vignette of nightlife, a jazzy evocation of “Duke Ellington in Harlem,” but eventually realized he was ignoring, even resisting, the consequences of what he had already completed. Though the symphony ends quietly, Davis carefully calibrating its fading pulse as the chimes of the opening return to begin the diurnal cycle anew, Night does not offer the soothing release of sleep. Instead it is a harrowing incubus, a sometimes pounding, sometimes cackling danse macabre interspersed with eerie sighs and moans from exotic percussion like the lion’s roar. The composer, who just turned 80 in December, came on to a lion’s roar of applause looking mightily (and justifiably) pleased with this fearless and unflinching embrace of his thorny symphony.

The turmoil could have spilled over had Davis and pianist Alessio Bax chosen to highlight the more tempestuous aspects and darker hues of the Mozart concerto as Radu Lupu and Andris Nelsons did two seasons ago. However, they opted for a more classical approach, unshadowed by Beethoven, marked by a lean string sound, crisp attacks, incisive articulation, and Bax’s remarkably featherweight touch and pellucid timbre. Everything flows from his fingers, the hands occasionally articulated from the wrist but otherwise level. He rarely raises his arms or hunches over the keyboard. Poise and control were his visual and aural hallmarks. Intimacy, precision, fluidity, and elegance were those of both orchestra and piano. A minor miscalculation in pedaling blurred some of Bax’s more rapid passagework, but that was the only blot on an otherwise sparkling performance.

Sir Andrew Davis, Alessio Bax and the Boston Symphony © Hilary Scott
Sir Andrew Davis, Alessio Bax and the Boston Symphony
© Hilary Scott

Any listener asked which symphony on the program had been written in wartime would likely choose the spiky Harbison not the balm and solace of Vaughan Williams’ Fifth. In 1938, age 65 and stymied once again in completing an operatic version of John Bunyan’s Christian allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, he began to write a symphony incorporating some of its music. Completed in 1943 and perhaps the quietest symphony of the modern era, its expansive spiritual depth and repose establish it as the antithesis to another member of the Class of ‘43, Shostakovich’s astringent Eighth, a requiem so steeped in the horrors and grinding suffering of Stalinist Russia that it provides little consolation. Vaughan Williams transcends the horrors of war to appeal to the angels of our better selves, using the modalities of hymns and folk music to create a contemplative, incantatory, and at times prayerful soundscape which, despite its yearning and outbursts of anxiety, soothes and reassures.

Bunyan wrote his narrative “in the similitude of a dream” and that is precisely the sense Sir Andrew created, while not failing to give the outbursts their due. In an era of devices and screens and fractured attention, Davis invited us to leave it all behind, to yield to the symphony’s yearning to go inward and dream, enveloping us in a warm and comforting glow of autumnal colors. Attention to pacing and tension kept the hypnotic qualities of the score from devolving into the narcotic. The celestial glimmer Davis gave to the final fade-out was moving, transcendent, and wondrous.


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