Written by James Carder
This year’s Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival will conclude on June 18th with an exciting new work: John Harbison’s Six American Painters. According to Harbison, each of the movements of this 2000 composition was begun as a musical description of six paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, as the work developed, it seemed better to name the movements for the painters rather than for the specific paintings:
I wanted to evoke the artists’ after-images, rather than any of the individual paintings. When you look at a picture, you take away with you a general impression, a mood or color, that dominates the details; in music, on the other hand, one is apt to remember the details, a tune or a harmony. I wanted these movements to be a perceivable whole, an act of seeing.
The six painters (and the six movements) are: I. George Caleb Bingham; II. Thomas Eakins; III. Martin Johnson Heade; IV. Winslow Homer; V. Hans Hoffman; and VI. Richard Diebenkorn.
The composition was originally scored for a flute quartet and was premiered in Cincinnati in 2002. However, his long-time student and friend, oboist Peggy Pearson, asked him to re-score the flute part for oboe, which he did in 2003. Harbison has known Pearson since she was a teenager and has written a half-dozen or so pieces for her over the years. For the oboe version, he adapted some of the movements and scrapped the Homer movement altogether and replaced it with one based on a painting by the artist George Inness.
According to violinist Jennifer Elowitch, Founder and Artistic Director Emerita of the Portland Chamber Music Festival, Six American Painters “is one of those pieces that audiences can really enjoy on a first hearing. I like the piece’s simplicity, actually. There is a lot of rhythmic unison, so [the musicians] play together much of the time, and it gives the piece a lot of openness and clarity.”
John Harbison won a Pulitzer Prize in 1987 and received a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1989. The Metropolitan Opera commissioned him to write three operas, including The Great Gatsby in 1999. He is on the music faculty at MIT.
Peggy Pearson, the recipient of many prestigious awards, is a member of the Bach Aria Group, solo oboist with the Emmanuel Chamber Orchestra, and principal oboist with the Boston Philharmonic. She has toured internationally and recorded extensively. She has appeared with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and performed with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Music from Marlboro. She is currently on the faculties at Boston Conservatory and MIT. Peggy also is a frequent and much- admired participant in the annual Chesapeake Chamber Music Festivals.
For further details on the 2022 Chesapeake Chamber Music Festival and to purchase tickets, visit https://chesapeakemusic.org/.