Over the past week, the Washington DC-based Post-Classical Ensemble, in conjunction with The George Washington University, the National Gallery of Art, and the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia, presented an ambitious series of three programs looking at the life and work of Lou Harrison.
A true American original, Harrison was a composer of great lyric gifts and a maverick who espoused “world music” before we called it that. He was also an ardent environmentalist and pacifist, a poet and Esperanto scholar, an accomplished calligrapher and painter, and an out, gay man in a time when that was not an easy thing to be.
This “mini-festival” was amazingly well attended — it was a great antidote to the commonly heard refrain “classical music/contemporary music is a dying art form which audiences no longer support.” If a series like this can prosper in DC, not always known for embracing new and different things, it’s a good sign!
The first program featured a preview screening of a new documentary by filmmaker and Harrison friend and collaborator Eva Soltes. The film “Lou Harrison: A World of Music” is informative and entertaining, and features interviews with Harrison, Merce Cunningham, and Dennis Russell Davies, among others. It also captures some very touching moments shared between Harrison and his lover Bill Colvig. It’s difficult to portray a life in 90 minutes, but I left this screening with a very strong sense of the man and the life he led. The documentary is not yet commercially available, but plans are in the works to release it on DVD.
The second event, a look at the influence of Indonesian gamelan music on Harrison’s work, featured fine performances by the Wesleyan University Gamelan Ensemble playing the instruments housed at the Indonesian Embassy. Unfortunately, the keynote address delivered by composer and Harrison scholar Bill Alves, plagued by audio troubles throughout, presented a chronological biography of Lou Harrison instead of focusing on the evening’s stated theme: the relationship between Harrison and gamelan. (The next night, Alves was much more comfortable and informative delivering extemporaneous remarks during stage changes at the concert.)
The concluding night’s concert was divided into two parts. The first half featured the Wesleyan gamelan players again, led by their music director Sumarsam, in two Harrison works combining traditional gamelan forces with non-Indonesian instruments. Pianist Lisa Moore gave a sturdy rendition of the first movement of the “Concerto for Piano & Javanese Gamelan,” a very non-Western concerto in which the piano, tuned to the gamelan’s tuning, participates more as a member of the ensemble than a stand-alone soloist. “Burbaran Robert” for trumpet and gamelan gave piccolo trumpet soloist Chris Gekker a chance to walk to various positions throughout the auditorium, playing Baroque-inflected figures from different locations. I found the theatrical effect of the lone trumpeter playing throughout the hall strangely touching: at the end, he simply walked down the aisle and disappeared.
For the second half, Angel Gil-Ordóñez led the Post-Classical Ensemble in two more substantial works. The first of these was the highlight of the evening: the monumental 1985 “Piano Concerto,” played with great intensity and beauty by pianist Benjamin Pasternack. Although this concerto was recorded in 1988 by Keith Jarrett (who commissioned it), live performances of it are rare. That’s a shame, because there’s a lot to like here. Memories of Brahms, Schumann, and even Beethoven work their way into the Eastern-influenced material in a truly original way. Pasternack brought a fresh interpretation to the piece (including an improvised cadenza in the first movement), and I also was able to hear things from the orchestra that I’ve never heard on the Jarrett recording. The virtuostic second movement “Stampede” is not to be believed: a crashing athletic game of chase between a drummer and the pianist, who needs the help of a felt-covered wooden “octave bar” to facilitate the incredibly fast cluster playing Harrison calls for. After the gorgeous time-suspending slow movement, the perpetual-motion finale was given an appropriately relaxed reading, quietly spinning itself out of existence.
The concert concluded with the “Four Strict Songs.” This 1955 work is based on four poems by Harrison himself, modeled after Navajo nature-praise songs, each set to a different five-tone scale (part of the “strictness” of the title), but achieving surprising variety as a set. They were given a fine performance by The George Washington University Chamber Singers.
The works of Harrison should be heard more often. They’re audience-friendly without ever being simplistic, they feel relevantly modern in a way that a lot of the music of the 20th century doesn’t, and they’re well written. If the audience for this festival was any indication, the interest is there, waiting to be satisfied.
Scott Pender is a Washington, DC-based composer.
Previously on My Big Gay Ears: