The esteemed American composer, conductor and teacher, John (Harris) Harbison. was born into a musical family. He studied violin, viola, piano, tuba, and voice, while attending Princeton (N.J.) High School. During this time, he also profited from advice from Sessions and developed a facility as a jazz pianist. He was improvising on the piano by five years of age and started a jazz band at age 12. At 16, he won an awarded a BMI composition contest. He pursued his education with Piston at Harvard University (B.A., 1960), Blacher at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik (1961), and Sessions and Kim at Princeton University (M.F.A., 1963). He also attended conducting courses of Carvalho at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood and of Dean Dixon in Salzburg.
John Harbison is one of America's most prominent composers. Among his principal works are four string quartets, three symphonies, the cantata The Flight Into Egypt, which earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1987, and three operas including The Great Gatsby, commissioned by The Metropolitan Opera and premiered to great acclaim in December 1999.
John Harbison's music is distinguished by its exceptional resourcefulness and expressive range. He has written for every conceivable type of concert performance, ranging from the grandest to the most intimate, pieces that embrace jazz along with the pre-classical forms of Heinrich Schütz and J.S. Bach, the graceful tonality of Prokofiev, and the rigorous atonal methods of late Igor Stravinsky. He is also a gifted commentator on the art and craft of composition and was recognized in his student years as an outstanding poet (he wrote his own libretto for Gatsby.) Today, he continues to convey, through the spoken word, the multiple meanings of contemporary composition.
The 2001-02 season sees the revival of The Great Gatsby at the Metropolitan Opera in April, Six American Painters in versions for flute and oboe quartet, and String Quartet No. 4, a co-commission for the Orion Quartet by the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, La Jolla Chamber Music Festival, and Caramoor Festival.Scheduled for premiere in the 2002-03 season are a Requiem for the Boston Symphony and the New York premiere of Four Psalms (1999, commissioned by the Israeli Consulate of Chicago and composed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel).Recent premieres include Partita, a Minnesota Orchestra centennial commission, the ensemble version of Mottetti di Montale, and the song cycle North and South by the Chicago Chamber Musicians. A major revival of The Great Gatsby took place at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in October 2000.
John Harbison has been composer-in-residence with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, the Tanglewood, Marlboro, and Santa Fe Chamber Festivals, and the American Academy in Rome. His music has been performed by many of the world's leading ensembles, and more than 30 of his compositions have been recorded on the Nonesuch, Northeastern, Harmonia Mundi, New World, Decca, Koch, Centaur, Archetype, and CRI labels.
As conductor, John Harbison has led a number of leading orchestras and chamber groups. From 1990 to 1992 he was Creative Chair with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, conducting music from Monteverdi to the present. In 1991, at the Ojai Festival, he led the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Former music director of the Cantata Singers in Boston (1969-1973), Harbison has conducted many other ensembles, among them the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, and Handel and Haydn Society. For many years he has been principal guest conductor of Emmanuel Music in Boston, leading performances of Bach cantatas, 17th-century motets, and new music.
Following completion of a junior fellowship at Harvard, John Harbison joined the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where, in 1984, he was named Class of 1949 Professor of Music and, in 1994,The Killian Award Lecturer in recognition of "extraordinary professional accomplishments"; he has also taught at CalArts and Boston University and is currently on the faculty of the Aspen Music Festival. In 1991, he was the Mary Biddle Duke Lecturer in Music at Duke University, with a publication forthcoming from Duke University Press.
In 1998, John Harbison was named winner of the Heinz Award for the Arts and Humanities, a prize established in honor of the late Senator John Heinz by his wife Teresa Heinz to recognize five leaders annually for significant and sustained contributions in the following areas: the Arts and Humanities, the Environment, the Human Condition, Public Policy and Technology, and the Economy and Employment. Among other awards the composer has received are the Kennedy Center Friedheim First Prize of 1980 (for his Piano Concerto) and a MacArthur Fellowship in 1989. With his wife Rose Mary Harbison, for whom he has composed much of his violin music, Harbison runs the Token Creek Music Festival on the family farm in Wisconsin.
Furthering the work of younger composers is one of John Harbison's prime interests, and he serves on the boards of directors of the American Academy in Rome, the Copland Fund (as president), and the Koussevitzky Foundation, as well as juries of the Fromm Foundation and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His music is published exclusively by Associated Music Publishers.