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On Willows and Birches, Concerto for Harp and Orchestra - now available for purchase!

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A previously unreleased live recording of On Willows and Birches, Concerto for Harp and Orchestra written by Boston Pops Laureate Conductor John Williams for former BSO Principal Harpist Ann Hobson Pilot, is now available for purchase. The orchestral work was recorded live at Symphony Hall on October 3, 2009 and features the Boston Symphony Orchestra led by former BSO Assistant Conductor Shi-Yeon Sung. The recording is available in three digital formats: 320kbps MP3, AIFF High Definition Stereo, and WMA High Definition Stereo.

http://www.bso.org/bso/mods/content1.jsp?id=46200012

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Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,

Whose only play was what he found himself,

Summer or winter, and could play alone.

One by one he subdued his father's trees

By riding them down over and over again

Until he took the stiffness out of them,

And not one but hung limp, not one was left

For him to conquer. He learned all there was

To learn about not launching out too soon

And so not carrying the tree away

Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise

To the top branches, climbing carefully

With the same pains you use to fill a cup

Up to the brim, and even above the brim.

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The Harp Concerto is an exceedingly beautiful work. Williams' own love of the instrument and his knowledge of Ann Hobson Pilot shine through very clearly.

The On Willows movement has an ethereal mysterious and contemplative mood that captures the initial inspiration of the Psalm 137, We hanged our harps upon the willows, quite eloquently. The shimmering, ruminating nature of the music is typical concert work Williams, the orchestration sparse, setting the harp in the spotlight right away. Particularly noteworthy are the velvety clarinet solos that often dance around the harp figures that ascend and descend, the composer offering the soloist ample opporturnity to showcase her mastery of the instrument. The solos are articulate and clear and cover nearly every imaginable technique. Williams builds the thematic material throughout the movement, the main idea consisting of shimmering motif more recognizable by technique than melodic content and almost as if produced by the wind wafting through harps suspended from the branches of a willow tree. The music is very atmospheric and serene almost dusky in hue, the harp offering glimmers of light to the warm twilight of clarinet and strings.

The On Birches movement in contrast is an energetic dance for the harp and orchestra, the instrument used here with expert skill as it sings out rapid melodies, bouncing along, swinging on the birches of Robert Frost's poem. The orchestra offers a more robust accompaniment in this movement but the harp remains the dazzling centerpiece, ever joyous and effervescent, driven by a motoric figure that is repeated throughout by the orchestra. The festive, playful mood continues until a luminous interlude explores in a calmer style the melodic idea of the movement, offering for a moment the soloist time to return to the ruminative mood of the previous movement. Rising and falling patterns so prevalent in the concerto are repeated, the dancing main idea of the movement slowed and reinterpreted with thoughtful delicacy. And as suddenly as the dance calmed down it begins again, this time backed by the full orchestra and the harp dances with it to an energetic finish.

This concerto has become one of my favourites. I love the two contrasting movements which both offer so different material, one ruminative and atmospheric, the other melodic, playful and festive.

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I've been listening to this BSO recording a lot over this summer and I've really fallen in love with this piece.  It's up there with his greatest concert works!

 

The mystery and ambiguity of On Willows.  The playful mischief of On Birches.

 

Ahhh it's so good.

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4 hours ago, Miguel Andrade said:

Actually, while Quartet La Jolla was premiered later, it was composed before the Harp Concerto.

 

Didn't the La Jolla Quartet premiere something like 2 years after On Willows & Birches?  The La Jolla Summerfest folks sat on that for 2+ years?  Madness!  I'm not doubting you, it's just weird.

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Williams started working on the quartet years before the Harp Concerto. I would guess that the score of the quartet was ready maybe an year in advance of its premiere, and that would make the finish date of it's compositions posterior to the concerto. But I do recall reading somewhere that the quartet was used as a sort of training ground during the years of its composition.

I'll try to find some of that info and post it here with the correct sources.

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