Lou HARRISON (1917 – 2003)

Music for Orchestra, Ensemble and Gamelan
CD 1
Seven Pastorales (1952) [19:15]
New First Suite for Strings (1937/1947 rev 1995) [19:03]
Vestiunt Silve (1951/1994) [3:50]
Gending Chelsea for Gamelan [10:43]
Sanctus (1940) [6:45]
Suite from the Marriage at the Eiffel Tower (1949 arranged 1961) [16:15]
CD 2
Philemon and Baukis [12:35]
Cornish Lancaran [5:31]
Gending Alexander [13:23]
Homage to Pacifica [36:49]
Bubaran Robert [5:27]
CD 3
Suite from the ballet 'Solstice' (1949) [26:41]
Ariadne (1987) [7:59]
A Summerfield Set (1987 rev 1988) [11:31]
Canticle No.3 (1941 rev 1989) [14:36]
CD 4
Third Symphony (1982) [32:41]
Grand Duo for Violin and Piano (1988) [34:39]
Sarah Adams (viola), Berkeley Chamber Singers, Jody Diamond and the Lou Harrison Gamelan Group, Lee Duckles (cello), Scott Evans (percussion), Nohema Fernandez (celesta), Gamelan Si Betty, Emily Wong George (tack piano), Renate Gola (soprano), Emily Golden (mezzo), Adam Gordon (trumpet), Lou Harrison (narrator), Daniel Kennedy (percussion), Janet Lyman Hill (viola), Karen Lindquist (harp), Timothy Malish (flute), Todd Manley (percussion), Leta Miller (flute and ocarina), Yvonne Powers (oboe), David Rosenthal (percussion), Dennis Russell Davies (piano), Peter Shelton (cello), Robert Strizich (guitar), Romuald Tecco (violin), Virgil Thomson (narrator), Stephen Tramontozzi (string bass), William Winant (percussion), Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, Cabrillo Music Festival Orchestra, Dennis Russell Davies
Recording dates not given DDD
Re–issues of Music Masters recordings: 1990, 1991, 1992 and 2000
NIMBUS 2571/74 [4 CDs: 75:51 + 74:08 + 61:20 + 68:12]
Further review from Rob Barnett
If ever a composer lived whose music was vital and elemental, whose vision was that of a seer, whose outlook was worldwide, who communicated and wrote music which spoke directly to the senses, that man was Lou Harrison. Never have I received something for review which has given me more pleasure at just the mere thought of it. In the pantheon of composers, Lou Harrison is one of the very few who deserves the epithet great.
I had the great, good, fortune to meet Harrison when he came to London for the 1985 Almeida Festival. He was a big man in every way, his build, his personality and, I remember it so well, his laughter. He laughed as lot when he spoke. It seemed that nothing was to be taken seriously. I enjoyed the all too short time I was able to spend with him, and I shall never forget it.
Not only was Harrison a great composer but he had become part of musical history for a very different reason – he conducted the first performance of Charles Ives’s 3rd Symphony, The Camp Meeting, in 1946. The following year, the Symphony won, for Ives, the Pulitzer Prize for Music.The composer gave half the prize money to Harrison, saying "prizes are for boys, and I'm all grown up".
Harrison’s first trip to Japan and Korea took place in 1961 and the following year he visited Taiwan. With his partner, William Colvig, he built a tuned percussion ensemble, called "an American gamelan," in order to show that it was separate from the Indonesia gamelan. He wrote La Koro Sutro and Suite for Violin and American Gamelan for this ensemble. Lou Harrison suffered a heart attack, and died, whilst en route to a festival of his music in Ohio. He was 85 years old, but only physically, for his musical mind was as young and questing as ever. As tribute to this great man, I can do no bettre than quote from the biography of him on the University of California and Santa Cruz website devoted to his archive: “As a composer, artist, poet, calligraphist, peace activist, Lou Harrison dedicated his life to bringing beauty into the world, and those of us who remember his warm generosity, his integrity of spirit, and his irrepressible joyfulness, owe a great debt of gratitude that he did.*” We, his audience, owe him a debt of gratitude for his many marvellous musical works.
So what of the music offered in these four CDs? Quite frankly, as far as I am concerned as the four CDs contain music by Lou Harrison, that is recommendation enough. But, perhaps a few pointers might be welcome for those not acquainted with this work. Harrison’s style is basically tonal, but the tonality is expanded and richer than one would expect. His forms hark back to the baroque and just as he marries together east and west, in his work the old meets the new.
The Seven Pastorales are scored for a small orchestra, but there is the feeling of chamber music throughout, so carefully, and delicately, are they scored. The New First Suite for Strings has been performed in England – the Orchestra of St John's, Smith Square, under John Lubbock gave the UK première at the Proms on 12 August 1997 – so at least we’ve had a chance to hear it. It’s a serious work in five movements, but with episodes which will surprise, and delight, you – the third movement Round Dance in particular.
Vestiunt Silve is a simple song inscribed “For Wilfrid Meller’s (sic) 80th birthday”. Wilfrid was another larger than life figure – I remember bumping into him at the Wigmore Hall, after a performance, by the Guildhall Strings, of his Hortus Rosarium, saying, “I’m going backstage to see them, just to let them know I’m still alive, because I am, you know!” It’s easy to understand the affection they would have shared for one another.
Gending Chelsea is based on a sixteen bar idea by Virgil Thomson and sets some of his aphorisms. Sanctus is an ecstatic setting of the words of the mass, for voice and piano. Marriage at the Eiffel Tower is a ballet with text and décor by Jean Cocteau for which five members of Les Six composed the music. Harrison was asked to compose a new score for the ballet and this suite is from that score. After what has already been heard, the sheer light-heartedness of the piece will surprise. It’s in the manner of Les Six but with an American twang. This is added to by having Virgil Thomson and the composer tell the story. Delightful!
CD 2 contains gamelan music, and here one must leave behind all your ideas about what constitutes music. Gamelan music is so different from anything you’ve ever heard that the purity and beauty of the sound can come as quite a shock. The first two works here include parts for western solo instrument – violin and trumpet, but the third is pure gamelan; Gending Alexander consists of a very beautiful line which is accompanied by a variety of rhythmic devices. The pulse is slow, the tone gentle. Homage to Pacifica is a very large-scale suite in eight parts. This is more urban, American-sounding gamelan music – even to the extent of the second movement ending with a very western classical music cadence. There are solo parts for western instruments as well as parts for speakers and singers.
With Solstice we return to Harrison’s American music persona. This octet contains the sound of the gamelan, created with conventional instruments. This is a rather severe score, spiky and complex, yet it’s still attractive and approachable. There are nine short movements. Ariadne is a brief duo for flute and percussion and A Summerfield Set is a three movement work for solo piano. This latter would make a really good teaching piece, introducing young pianists to an interesting idiom which they might not otherwise encounter. Canticle No.3 could almost pass for real gamelan music, with a little bit of ocarina; as you’d expect flute in the real thing this is a good substitute, and some guitar, which you wouldn’t. It’s a nicely jaunty piece of cross-fertilisation from a master hand.
Perhaps the best has been kept for last. The Third Symphony is a six movement work with big outer movements and smaller inner ones. Again, there is a slightly different voice at work here when compared with some of the other pieces in this collection. The Symphony is a joyous work, a sunny, smiling, uncomplicated piece, using music written as long ago as 1942! In one way this is quite an Ivesian composition, with movements being taken from already existing pieces – a light waltz is set up by a threnody, and the whole ends in high spirits. Unlike Ives, there is no catastrophe There isn’t any overt reference to the gamelan and a more American voice asserts itself in the manner of Copland.
There is a strange, misty quality about the opening movement of the Grand Duo for Violin and Piano. Both instruments seem to be taking it carefully so as not to falter. It’s beautiful and hypnotic, with a long-breathed melody for the fiddle which is self-perpetuating. Often in this work, the two instruments seem to be enjoying separate reveries, which progress simultaneously without regard for each other. But yet, they work well together and each could not exist without the other. It’s a fascinating piece.
As I have pointed out there might appear to be more than one Lou Harrison at work here – the eastern-influenced composer and the American. But this should not worry us for, as Virgil Thomson has said, “Lou Harrison is not making plastic roses for funeral parlors. He is simply speaking in many personae and many languages. The message itself is pure Harrison. And that message is of joy, dazzling and serene, and even at its most intensely serious, not without laughter.”
These four CDs comprise the complete recordings of Harrison’s music made by the MusicMasters label and we must be grateful to Nimbus for bringing them back into the catalogue, and in such marvellous sound. The notes are very good indeed – 20 pages of them – and they are a real help to someone just starting to investigate this very interesting composer. This is one of the most exciting and interesting items I have had the pleasure of reviewing all year, I hope that it will be enjoyed by as many people as possible for it shows a side of American music so removed from the music we know from that country – Copland, Barber, Rorem. Also, it’s very good music. Please, on no account, should you miss this very special issue.
Bob Briggs

* Bill Alves Professor of Music, The Claremont Colleges
On no account, should you miss this very special issue.