John Harbison receives the Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities for his talent as a composer, his generosity as a teacher, and his commitment to artistic excellence.
His music is distinguished by its exceptional and expressive range. Among his principal works are three string quartets, three symphonies, two operas, and the cantata Flight Into Egypt, which earned him the Pulitzer Prize in 1987. Mr. Harbison is passionate about his art, but that passion extends beyond his personal creativity. Throughout his career, he has unselfishly devoted time and energy to nurturing the talents of younger composers.
Of John Harbison's prodigious abilities, Andre Previn says, "He has managed an almost impossible task in the musical world of today. He has written music of the most personal profundity, wit and intellectualism without making it impenetrable to a concert audience. His music speaks to the heart and to the emotions of the listeners ..."
Over the past 30 years, John Harbison has earned a place as one of the leading composers of the modern era. He has left his mark on nearly every classical musical genre, his compositions have been performed by every major symphony orchestra in America, and he routinely receives commissions from the most important performers and conductors in the world. His work has been described as crystalline in texture, ethereal in atmosphere, shimmering in coloration, and deeply complex and magical.
But Mr. Harbison has never been content merely to practice his art. He places equal emphasis on teaching it. By actively involving himself in the educational departments of both the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestras and, more recently, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, he has introduced new audiences to orchestral music. As Professor of Music at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he has been on the faculty since 1969, he serves as Chair of the Music and Theater Arts Section. While at MIT, he has made a point of both attracting top young faculty members to the school and exposing students to distinguished senior composers and performers. He consistently seeks out opportunities to involve his students in the artistic process by integrating his professional activities with his role as a teacher. In 1994, for example, when the cellist Yo-Yo Ma commissioned a concerto, Mr. Harbison not only created an electrifying world premiere event for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he also saw to it that rehearsals were open to his students and that rehearsal pianists were MIT students.
Such acts are an expression of Mr. Harbison's deep concern for the society in which he lives. In 1964, he worked in the historic Freedom Summer Project in the vanguard of the Civil Rights Movement. In Flight Into Egypt, he used the biblical story of the nativity to explore the plight of the poor and homeless in contemporary society. Without fanfare, Mr. Harbison contributed all the fees from that piece to a Boston shelter for the homeless.
John Harbison possesses a thorough command of his craft and a rare ability to draw on our collective artistic past. He possesses a contemporary vision, a generous spirit and a belief in the power of his art to transform. Such are John Harbison's abilities and dedication that his work, both as composer and teacher, indeed, possesses that power.
Note: This profile is excerpted from the commemorative brochure published at the time of the awards' presentation.
UPDATES SINCE RECEIVING THE HEINZ AWARD
July 2013 - The Boston Symphony Orchestra has presented John Harbison with the Mark M. Horblit "Merit Award" for distinguished composition by an American composer. The award was created in 1947 by the late Boston attorney Mark M. Horblit to, in his own words, "foster and promote the writing of symphonic compositions by composers resident in the United States…in recognition of meritorious work in that field." Mr. Harbison is the 22nd recipient of the award. - Boston Symphony Orchestra
February 2006 - Harbison debuts his 30-minute soprano and orchestra piece Milosz Songs performed by soprano Dawn Upshaw and the New York Philharmonic. The piece is based on 10 poems by the Nobel Prize-winning writer Czeslaw Milosz. - The New York Times
December 2005 - Harbison's recording Mottetti di Montale is nominated for a 2006 Grammy Award in the Best Small Ensemble Performance category. - Massachusetts Institute of Technology
November 2005 - Harbison is the director for the 2005 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music, a week-long celebration of musical artists and genres. - American Record Guide
January 2005 - The New York Philharmonic announces that its 2005-06 season is to premiere several commissioned pieces of Harbison's. His operas will be included as part of the "season-long celebration of the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth." - The New York Times
January 2004 - Harbison premieres his piece entitled Abraham at the Papal Concert for Reconciliation in Rome. The six-minute piece was performed by a chorus and orchestra for the Pope and a "contingent of Catholic, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders." - Capital Times
November 2003 - Harbison is commissioned by the Vatican to write a piece "to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's elevation to the papacy." The piece is to "celebrate peace, reconciliation and ecumenism." - Capital Times
May 2000 - Harbison receives the Harvard Arts Medal which was originally "created to honor a distinguished Harvard alumnus or faculty member who has achieved excellence in the arts." - Harvard University
May 2000 - Harbison receives the American Music Center's Letter of Distinction for his significant contributions to the field of music throughout his lifetime. - G. Schirmer Inc.