John Harbison (b. 1938)
Music Director 1969 – 1973; 1980 – 1982
John Harbison became Cantata Singers’ third music director in 1969. During his years of leadership, including a second two-year period during which he served as music director and shared the conducting duties with Craig Smith and David Hoose, Mr. Harbison placed a potent stamp on the organization. His performances with the ensemble were distinguished by scholarly programming and probing interpretations, and they won the dedication of singers and instrumentalists alike. Mr. Harbison has also appeared as guest conductor occasionally, first in 1975, in performances of Bach’s Passion According to Saint Matthew (Cantata Singers’ first performances of this work), most recently in 2005, conducting Bach’s Passion According to Saint John.
During his tenure, Mr. Harbison only rarely included his compositions on his programs, but his music has come to play an important role in the life of Cantata Singers. The organization has performed nine of his compositions, numbers of them several times. Three of his works are Cantata Singers commissions, the most recent of which received its world premiere during the 50th anniversary season in 2014.
John Harbison is Institute Professor of Music at MIT, the highest academic distinction offered resident faculty, and he is Principal Guest Conductor of Emmanuel Music. Among America’s most distinguished artistic figures, he received the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for The Flight into Egypt, and he received a MacArthur Foundation’s Genius Award in 1989. In 2006, Collage New Music’s recording of his Motetti di Montale was nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best Small Ensemble Performance category.
John Harbison’s musicianship is all-encompassing: composing, conducting, teaching, and playing. He has been recognized by Brandeis University (Creative Arts Citation in Music, 1971) and by the National Institute of Arts and Letters (Award for Creative Work in Musical Composition, 1972). Virtually all of the significant United States orchestras, the Metropolitan Opera, many distinguished chamber groups, and a wide array of other organizations—from the New York Bar Association to the Israeli Consulate in Chicago to the 2004 Papal Concert of Reconciliation—have commissioned works from him.
John Harbison received degrees from Harvard and Princeton universities, where he studied with Walter Piston and Roger Sessions, respectively, before joining the faculty of MIT. His wife, violinist Rose Mary Harbison, was long-time concertmaster and a soloist with the Cantata Singers orchestra.