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Harbison's 'Abu Ghraib' set for June premiere

Composer John Harbison sang protest songs around the piano with his family when he was a child, and as a young man he went to Mississippi to register voters during the Freedom Summer of 1964.

Throughout his career he has written music to politically engaged texts. The song cycle ``The Flower-Fed Buffaloes," for example, both celebrates American ideals and questions what has become of them, and ``Four Psalms," a work for chorus and orchestra, juxtaposes settings of ancient Hebrew Psalms with commentary by contemporary Israelis and Arabs. Even some of his purely instrumental music, such as the urban landscapes of ``Three City Blocks," carries a political charge. It ends with a police whistle and a siren.

His latest work -- commissioned by the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, with funding from the Jebediah Foundation/New Music Commissions -- is a piece for cello and piano called ``Abu Ghraib ." Festival director and pianist David Deveau and cellist Rhonda Rider will play the premiere on June 18 at the Rockport Art Association.

Harbison downplays political activism in his music when he writes program notes. Many composers do so because to specify political content is to narrow and limit the message to that.

In a program note for ``Abu Ghraib ," Harbison writes that his ``piece is not a protest or a moral lesson. These would require little bravery. Instead it seeks music in a moment when words can fail."

Two ``Scenes," each followed by a ``Prayer," form the parts of the 13-minute work. The first Scene ``investigates infection and wrongness," in Harbison's words.

In a phone interview, Deveau said, ``The first Scene begins with ritualistic, military-sounding music that conveys a sense of degrading violence."

The second Scene is based on an Iraqi song that the 21-year-old composer was hired to transcribe for a collection called ``Lullabies of the World" in 1962. Ironically, Deveau pointed out, ``it sounds like an appalling, twisted, distorted version" of two mainstream American hymns.

The prayers are pleas and meditations. ``Prayer II again suggests that by entering a difficult meditative world we may find courage to face our own Shadow," Harbison's note says. Deveau added, ``The piece ends quietly but inconclusively, which is very Harbisonian."

Rider, calling in from Oregon, said, ``We haven't rehearsed the piece with the piano yet, but I can say that the cello part is very elegant -- which, given the title of the piece, I was not expecting. The music for the cello is like the cello part in a Bach Cantata, very expressive, and without a wasted note."

Longy president leaving
Kwang-Wu Kim, president of the Longy School of Music for the last five years, is leaving to become dean of the Herberger College of Fine Arts at Arizona State University in Tempe.

Anna Kuwabara, the school's executive vice president, becomes interim president June 16 during the search for a successor. Kuwabara, who has worked at Longy for the last seven years, was previously director of operations at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Opera company's debut
There's a new kid on Boston's operatic block: Boston Midsummer Opera, which makes its bow in three performances of a Mozart anthology, ``The Marriages of Mozart," at BU's Tsai Performance Center Aug. 2, 4, and 6.

The artistic director and stage director will be countertenor Drew Minter , who staged several productions for the now-inactive Opera Aperta, a summer opera company that did good work with Minter and some of the same singers in the same venue.

Minter originally devised this program of courtship and marriage-related scenes from ``Cosi fan tutte," ``Don Giovanni," and ``Le Nozze di Figaro" for Monadnock Music in 2004. The cast will include two married couples: soprano Kelly Kaduce and baritone Lee Gregory , and soprano Jami Rogers and tenor Kevin Anderson . Other singers include baritone David Kravitz , soprano Jodi Frisbie, mezzo Kellie van Horn , and bass Charles Mays Jr. Philip Lauriat will conduct, with Sarah Sullivan as the set designer.

Boston Midsummer Opera is on the Web at www.bostonmidsummeropera.org.

Orchestras honored
Two Boston orchestras have won prestigious awards for adventurous programming from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Gil Rose , artistic director, won the John S. Edwards Award for the strongest commitment to new American music. And in the category of orchestras with annual operating expenses of $455,000 or less, the New England Philharmonic, Richard Pittman, music director, took first place.

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