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Lou HARRISON – four CDs from New World
 
Lou HARRISON (1917-2003)
Scenes from Cavafy (1979-80) [22:21]
John Duykers (voice); Gamelan Pacifica Chorus
Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan (1986-87) 24:41
Adrienne Varner (piano)
A Soedjatmoko Set (1989) 25:12
Jessika Kenney (voice); Gamelan Pacifica Chorus
rec. London Bridge Studio, Seattle, Washington, 30 March, 30 May 2009, 21 February 2010. DDD
NEW WORLD 80710-2 [72:35]

 

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Harrison first encountered the sound of Indonesian gamelan - a percussion orchestra largely comprising metallophones - in 1939. This was at the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay. Profoundly impressed Harrison thought it the most captivating experience to which he returned in strength after his breakdown.
 
The present disc is the latest entry by New World into the Harrison lists. Their previous Harrison CDs are distinguished indeed and are invariably as superbly documented as this one. I have taken the opportunity to review the other three here for the sake of completeness.
 
Scenes from Cavafy is in three movements. The Cavafy here is Constantine P Cavafy (1863-1933), the Greek poet. The work is laid out for male solo, male chorus and gamelan ensemble. The gamelan chiming patter and fluting of the suling (flute) intertwine with the gravely rounded singing of Gending Cafavy (I). The second movement is Gending Bill/Lancaran Jody. It has a more assertive role for the gamelan - but the solo voice is inward and reflective. There are no surface dramatics or glamour; just a sort of sustained exaltation. The piece dates from some five years after Harrison began his remedial studies with Javanese gamelan masters Pak Cokro and Jody Diamond. I say ‘remedial’ because Harrison had come in for - and had accepted - criticism for writing for Gamelan ensemble since the 1940s without the benefit of study with Indonesian tutors. Late in life Harrison redressed this and Scenes reflect his lessons in a new quintessential sobriety. The words are printed in full in the splendid booklet.
 
The Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan has great muscularity and the surface is not short of rhetoric or drama though this is a little muted in the finale. It was written for Belle Bulwinkle and is one of only eight works produced between 1976 and 1987 in which western traditional instruments are thrown into the melting pot with gamelan. The titles of the three movements are Bull's Belle - untitled - Belle's Bull. The untitled central episode is a gently chiming episode with a stilly regularity from which the piano emerges in touching melodic eloquence. Adrienne Varner is the attentive pianist.
 
Soedjatmoko Set was written to mark the death of the Indonesian intellectual, peace champion and diplomat of that name. It was premiered in Portland at Lewis and Clark College. The sung texts have world peace and nature's realm as their subject matter. Unlike the style of the Strict Songs of 1950 the singing is declamatory and collegiate - a little like the declamation to be found in the works of Alan Bush. Isna's Song is the middle movement. Its breathily oriental decoration is set against gamelan and a stratospherically soaring female voice articulating delight and sorrow. The sound of the voice reminded me of symphonies 38 and 47 by Alan Hovhaness in which he used the high fluting soprano of Hinako Fujihara, Hovhaness's wife. The finale has further statuesque declamatory singing.
 
Lou HARRISON (1917-2003)
Piano Concerto (1985) [32:44]
Keith Jarrett (piano)
New Japan Philharmonic/Naoto Otomo
rec. live, Kanihoken Hall, Tokyo, 30 Jan 1986
Suite for Violin, Piano and Small Orchestra (1951) [18:09]
Lucy Stoltzman (violin); Keith Jarrett (piano); Robert Stallman, Judith Mendenhall (flutes); Henry Schuman (oboe); Barbara Allen (harp); Elizabeth DeFelice (celesta); Aleck Karis (tack piano); Benjamin Herman (tam-tam); Eugene Moye, Lanny Paykin (cellos); Michael Willens (contrabass)/Robert Hughes
rec. RCA Studio A, New York, 21-22 May 1988
NEW WORLD RECORDS 80366 [50:53]
 

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These two works gaze at each other across a void of more than thirty years.
 
The Piano Concerto has a surging life typical of Finzi’s orchestra in the Clarinet Concerto and the Grand Fantasia and Fugue and of Tippett in the Concerto for Double String Orchestra. The grandeur of the mellifluous piano writing blends Beethoven, Nyman and Bach. This is not the faceless academicism of so much of the university production of the 1970s and 1980s. As if to drive the point home we have a Stampede second movement which has Gershwin and gamelan in uproarious pounding collision. The Largo provides needful repose after the volleying salvoes of the Stampede. The music moves in a quietly-ringing, restful slow-motion arc into murmuring welcoming depths. The very short and very active Allegro Moderato is gamelan-influenced and alive with patterning in motion.
 
The succinct six movement Suite has jazzily insistent and ringing third and fifth movements - each titled ‘gamelan’. The music looks in various directions. These include towards Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro. Then there’s the Orient, so valued by his teacher Henry Cowell and other contemporaries including Hovhaness, Britten (Prince of the Pagodas), Mcphee, Eichheim and Grainger. There is a cool Elegy, a statuesque Second Gamelan and a peaceful benediction in the shape of an intimate final Chorale.
 
The notes, rewarding in context and insight, are by Alan Rich. The recordings are clear though the studio-based delights of the Suite rather eclipse the thinner concert-hall acoustics of the Concerto.
 
The recording was supported by Betty Freeman, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York State Council on the Arts.
 
Lou HARRISON (1917-2003)
Chamber And Gamelan Works
Concerto in Slendro (1961) [9:37]
Daniel Kobialka (violin); Machiko Kobialka (tack piano I); James Barbagallo (tack piano II); Patricia Jennerjohn (celesta); Don Marconi (percussion); Jerome Neff (percussion)/Robert Hughes, conductor
Main Bersama-Sama (1978) [7:21]
Scott L. Hartman (French horn); Gamelan Sekar Kembar
Threnody for Carlos Chávez (1979) [7:06]
Susan Bates (violin); Gamelan Sekar Kembar
Serenade for Betty Freeman and Franco Assetto (1978) [5:48]
Lou Harrison, suling player; Gamelan Sekar Kembar
String Quartet Set (1978-9) [26:27]
Kronos Quartet (David Harrington (violin); John Sherba (violin); Hank Dutt (viola); Joan Jeanrenaud (cello)
Suite for Percussion (1942) [9:38]
The Manhattan Percussion Ensemble/Paul Price
This recording was originally issued as CRI CD 613.
NEW WORLD 80643-2 [66:14]

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These gamelan-inflected works – pretty much a given with Harrison - are mostly from the 1970s with two insurgents from the 1940s and 1960s. He had been attracted to the sound of the gamelan since the 1930s and encountered in San Francisco in 1939. The Concerto in Slendro was written on a freighter travelling to Japan. It romps into action with a Lark Ascending-style movement at speed revolving around a gamelan canvas. There’s a peaceful blessing in the Molto adagio and a busy birdsong dithyramb for the final vigorous Allegro.
 
An ambling Main Bersama-Sama has French horn and flute in peaceful yet purposeful serenade over and through metallic gamelan patterning. The Threnody for the Mexican composer Carlos Chavez is from 1979, the year after the Bersama. It is a rhapsody for solo violin and gamelan ensemble. The music is in subdued light and evokes consoling groves of trees. Susan Bates makes a superb job of this viola-accented piece. The Serenade was written for the wedding of the two named parties. This is effectively a concerto for the suling – the Indonesian vertical flute – and a troupe of gamelan players, eleven of them. They here include both the composer and his life-long partner William Colvig. Just when you expect this piece to settle into a pattern it rushes away in a rapture of its own – hypnotic but not somnolent. It does away with a wonderful metallic resonance. The String Quartet Set is played by the superb Kronos quartet. Its five movements variously suggest the world of the viol ensemble but lightly seasoned with 1930s Tippett. The music is concentrated. In the Plaint it is faintly semitic and despondent, in the Estampie dervish wild and in the Rondeaux relaxed and slowly curvaceous. The Usul finale sways with the rhythmic iterations of Turkish music. Some of this echoes the writing of Alan Hovhaness … or vice versa. The oldest piece here is the inventive three movement Suite for Percussion, written during the USA’s first full year of the Second World War. Its whispers, crinkling noises, startling reports and hammering remind us again that in the 1930s Harrison worked in the Chinese Theatre in California. He was often to be found hunting in scrap-yards and junk shops in search of a piece of metal with the right sound. Brace yourself.
 
The liner notes – a sustaining meal in themselves - are by Harrison biographer Leta Miller, professor of music at the University of California. Miller is the author of two books on Lou Harrison: (Composing a World: Lou Harrison, Musical Wayfarer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998; reprint, University of Illinois Press, 2004 and with Fredric. Lieberman: Lou Harrison. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006) as well as the Harrison article in the New Grove Dictionary of Music.
 
Lou HARRISON (1917-2003)
In Retrospect
First Concerto for Flute and Percussion (1939) [8:58]
Leta Miller (flute); William Winant and Heather Sloan (percussion)
Strict Songs (1955, revised 1992) [19:10]
Leroy Kromm (baritone); University of California, Santa Cruz Chamber Singers and Chamber Orchestra/Nicole Paiement
Ariadne (1987) [8:01]
Leta Miller (flute); William Winant (percussion)
Solstice (1950) [26:57]
Leta Miller (flute); Yvonne Powers (oboe); Adam Gordon (trumpet); Nohema Fernández (celesta); Emily Wong George (tack piano); Stephen Tramontozzi (string bass); Peter Shelton, Lee Duckles (cellos)/Dennis Russell Davies
rec. 1992, Performing Arts Concert Hall, University of California, Santa Cruz (First Concerto); July 1989, same venue (Ariadne and Solstice).
NEW WORLD RECORDS 80666-2 [63:31]

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The compact three movement First Concerto was premiered on 10 August 1941, at Bennington College by Otto Luening, with Henry Cowell and Frank Wigglesworth on percussion. It dates from 1939 and is among his most frequently performed works. The first movement is emotionally cool, gallic-accented and insistently repetitive. The second movement is marked ‘slow and poignant’. It is occluded and, not for the last time, suggests a cavernous avenue of trees. There’s a jazzy, chipper and playful Strong swinging and fastish finale. Strict Songs is gamelan inflected and large-scale - nothing surprising there. The smoothly resolved solo and choral singing has the melismatic curve of the Vaughan Williams choral works. This sequence, while several removes from its parallel, might well appeal to those who already enjoy the RVW Mystical Songs (Herbert) and the same composer’s Eighth Symphony. Here is Splendor has a steady vocal glow.
 
The hypnotic Ariadne has a signature similar to that of the First Concerto of almost half a century earlier. Here however the flute strikes a more dramatic stance. It was written in 1987 for the San Francisco dancer Eva Soltes. The inspiration derives from the music of India. The dancer plays her part in keeping time with ankle bells. Harrison wrote seven lines of music for flute and seven for percussion. The order in which the lines are played is left to the choice of the performer.

The nine movement ballet Solstice is from 1950. It was one of the first major pieces to emerge after Harrison’s breakdown occasioned by the pressures of what turned out to be an ill-calculated move to the East Coast. Solstice groups the nine segments into two parts. The scena represents the struggle between the old year and the new: “represented by Moon-Bull (the dark days of winter) and the Sun-Lion (the warmth of summer)”. The work was premiered on 22 January 1950 in New York, Merce Cunningham danced the part of the Sun-Lion; Donald McKayle, the Moon-Bull. The music is gorgeously detailed conjuring warm and lavish textures and melodies from minimal instrumental resources. Again his work in the Chinese Theatre in the 1930s seems to have left its stamp along with a Stravinskian eeriness. It’s an extremely attractive piece with pell-mell oriental activity contrasted with clouded and sinister-chilly realms. The final Blaze of Day sets delight free.
 
The First Concerto for Flute and Percussion and Strict Songs were first issued on Musical Heritage Society 513616L and Ariadne and Solstice on Musicmasters MMD 60241X.
 

Rob Barnett
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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