Two Gems in a Jewel Box: The World Premiere of Lou Harrison’s Solo Violin Sonata by Kate Stenberg on OM Records

OM 1036-2

Lou Harrison (1917-2003) was a prolific and innovative composer born in Portland, Oregon. He can truly be said to be part of a great lineage of artists past and present. He was a close friend of (one of his biggest influences) Henry Cowell. He collaborated with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Colin McPhee, as well as performers ranging from Maro and Anahid Ajemian to Dennis Russell Davies, Sarah Cahill, as well as fellow composer Richard Dee (with whom Harrison’s Music for Violin and American Gamelan). Dee was present at the 2017 Other Minds 22 revival of that work. This release is all about lineage.

Composer Richard Dee waving thanks for the performance of Suite for Violin and American Gamelan at OM 22 in 2017

It was Dee who presented Charles Amirkhanian with a photocopy of the score of Harrison’s 1936 Sonata. This early work by Harrison was “discovered” in 1963 by violinist Gary Beswick whose request for a solo violin work prompted Harrison to delve into his files where he unearthed this little gem. Beswick gave the premiere in that year but it took until 2022 to get it recorded.

Another major Bay Area artist, composer, performer, editor Larry Polansky edited, engraved and published the piece and made it available via his wonderful Frog Peak Music collective. The excellent liner notes by Harrison biographer Bill Alves and executive producer Charles Amirkhanian also cite the assistance of Carter Scholz (who worked with Stenberg in editing the score for performance), the late composer/conductor Robert Hughes (another Harrison collaborator with whom Harrison inaugurated the Cabrillo Music Festival) who encouraged and supported the project. And on a personal note, your humble reviewer feels a connection to both the music (long time fan) and to the man whom I was delighted to meet backstage many years ago in Chicago.

Such a project is an effort by a collective of archivists, performers, editors, recording engineers, producers, etc. Special notice needs to be given to Zach Miley who recorded, edited, and mastered this definitive recording in Oakland’s 35th St. studio. Musician and Other Minds staff member Andrew Weathers serves as producer and the tastefully understated package design was done by OM’s graphic artist wizard, Mark Abramson.

Press Photo by Jim Block Copyright 2016 by Kate Stenberg (from her website)

Clearly the music is one of the “gems” mentioned in the title and the second gem is the Bay Area violinist Kate Stenberg whose presence in various guises sheds defining light on a huge array music generally described under the rubric of “new music”. Her website is definitely worth your time to peruse and her concert appearances which are essential for new music fans. Like all the previously mentioned people in this little review her experience with the music of Harrison, Cowell, and others (including music by Mr. Amirkhanian) are among the finest and most definitive. I don’t know if Ms. Stenberg knew Mr. Harrison but, given his affable nature, I imagine their paths to have crossed. But regardless, Stenberg’s reading of this music reflect serious insight into the nature of the music and result in a performance that will define the work for years to come.

This brief work (around 7 minutes total) would seem too short to merit a full CD (which can hold nearly 90 minutes of music) but burying it among other works on a compilation CD would be far less than the work deserves. The beginning of solo violin writing for concert performance is Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas and large (20-30 minute) works for solo violin Bartok’s 1945 Violin Sonata along with perhaps Paganini’s 24 Caprices and Eugene Ysaye’s Solo Sonatas are major works in this genre. Doubtless many such works await performance and recordings but Harrison’s Sonata is brief almost in the tradition of Webern though without the severity. Harrison’s work also makes use of twelve tone writing so emblematic of the “Second Viennese School” (Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern) but does not resemble this historical triumvirate in its sound.

This sonata is cast in three movements titled “Largo Maestoso”, “Allegro Vigoroso”, and “Largo Moderato”. Though Harrison later abandoned twelve tone writing in his later work it is enlightening to see what he was able to do with this method channeled via his marvelously creative mind. Somewhat dissonant chords open the work and the angular melodies that are distinctly not the diatonic standard of the classical traditions of the 18th and 19th centuries create a rather dark atmosphere. Harrison also makes use of glissandi (sliding tones) which add a microtonal aspect. The second movement is a delightful and slightly jarring contrast. It maintains the angular chromatic writing but evokes a more celebratory dance like atmosphere (remember that Harrison was also a dancer). The use of glissandi is more present here. And the finale is a rather mysterious sounding ethereal movement which also uses pizzicati (plucked strings) judiciously to great effect. Despite the “largo” (slow) direction which describes the movement there is quite a bit of activity until the work closes softly as if evaporating into the mystical.

Only history will tell if this work will be judged a masterpiece or whether it even becomes incorporated into the standard performing repertory but this little CD single has a rather special cachet in that it is deeply enmeshed in a lineage of the composers, producers, etc. and, ultimately, the performer who seem to grasp the composer’s genius. You can buy this as an MP3 file, of course, but there is something special in the collection of people involved with this wonderful project and the end product of this fine CD. This is a major addition to the discography of Harrison’s work.


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