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Harbison's 'Abu Ghraib' is haunting

ROCKPORT -- When the Rockport Chamber Music Festival commissioned John Harbison to write a work to celebrate the festival's 25th anniversary, the composer had no idea that he would write a piece in response to the events in Abu Ghraib . As he told the sold-out audience at the premiere Sunday afternoon, the subject came as a surprise to him, the music unbidden. At intermission he remarked to a smaller group that he was relieved to leave the uncomfortable world of this piece when he was done with it.

``Abu Ghraib" for cello and piano did make an odd offering for a celebration, but it is a strong and disturbing piece that lodges in the mind. The 15-minute work is in four sections, two ``Scenes" interspersed with two ``Prayers" that arise in response to the scenes. The first Scene begins with piano and cello playing not quite in unison, a half-step apart, creating a painful dissonance. The second Scene medidates on an Iraqi lullaby that Harbison was asked to transcribe in 1962; the melody is a cousin to those of two familiar Western hymns, ``Rock of Ages" and ``Silent Night." These appear in disintegrating form, but the effect is nothing as simple as ironic commentary. It's something more terrifying than that -- they seem to reflect a society falling apart.

The first Prayer is build on an eloquent cello melody. The second Prayer closes with the opening intervals stretched out by an octave. They are still clashingly dissonant, but there is a wider space within them. The sound is still too bleak to represent anything like hope, but it does suggest that there are always other possibilities.

Harbison said he prefers to write music for his friends and to have them in mind as he composes. ``Abu Ghraib" was specifically intended for pianist David Deveau , artistic director of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, and cellist Rhonda Rider. They played the work with insight, passion , and conviction.

The St. Petersburg String Quartet, internationally prominent since its days as the Leningrad Quartet, opened with a sumptuous performance of the ``Nocturne" from Borodin's Second Quartet (well-known in its Broadway adaptation in ``Kismet" as ``And This Is My Beloved" ). Rider joined the quartet for Schubert's magnificent String Quintet. The performance was technically first-rate, but the approach was heavy and caloric, and the slow movement approached standstill.

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