Music: Composer with a Hot Hand

John Harbison rediscovers the appeal of the human voice

As a boy at summer camp, John Harbison spent more time perfecting his throw from third base to first than studying music. As a teen-age pianist in Princeton, N.J., he found it more rewarding to play jazz than to work on his classical technique. At Harvard, his teach er, Walter Piston, testing his resolve, advised him: "Under no circumstances should you ever be a composer."

Look at him now: winner of the Kennedy Center-Friedheim Award for the best orchestral piece of 1980; one of six composers commissioned to write a symphonic work for the...

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