San Jose Chamber Orchestra‘s music director and regular conductor Barbara Day Turner. A quick look at the orchestra’s web site or the repertoire of tonight’s conductor will dazzle and intrigue any fan of new music. This modest ensemble of approximately 20 musicians (give or take) consists of professional musicians who clearly take their work seriously. No spoilers here in saying that they turned in some seriously powerful and polished performances.It was a pleasant spring day in San Jose where, in this modest hall, there was to be a concert of mostly contemporary music with one exception. The concert was billed as “A Touch of Tech” due to its use in some pieces of electronics and, in one case, slide projections. However the overall sense of the experience left this writer with a strong sense of the romantic, hence the title of this review. The concert was to be led by the
This writer was initially asked to review this performance on behalf of the management agents of composer Vivian Fung (1975- ), a Canadian-American composer whose star is rising rapidly. In preparation for the evening’s performance it was wonderful to find some of her work on You Tube. It was a rewarding experience to hear some of her range of compositions. The featured composition of hers for this evening was Humanoid (2017) for cello and electronics. It was third in the programming sequence for the evening.First up though was a composition which initially seemed anachronistic in context. It was Dvorak’s Silent Woods (1833) for cello and orchestra in a transcription for cello and strings by Kerry Lewis. This piece of unabashed high romanticism in fact seemed to contextualize what was to follow. The soloist Coleman Itzkoff gave a wonderful display of his romantic chops in his interpretation of this somewhat lesser known bon bon of Dvorak’s. The audience responded most appreciatively to a lush and lovely performance. Second up was Green (2008-16) by Scottish-American composer Thea Musgrave (1928- ). This work was being played in honor of her 90th year. Mr. Musgrave was reportedly unable attend this evening, not due to infirmity but rather to industry. She is reportedly hard at work adding to her already prolific catalog of works. (This version was a string orchestra version prepared by Martyn Brabbins.) Nonetheless her presence was strongly felt in this recent ecologically themed piece for string orchestra (sans electronics). The tonalities in the work seemed to almost be echoes from the first work. Despite a few string effects, pizzicati, glissandi, there was an overall feeling of romantic gestures here in a discursive development that included a disturbing motif from the double basses and rather romantic and lyrical responses from solo violin and viola embedded in the lush orchestral textures (it is astonishing to hear what a master composer can do with a small string orchestra). The conductor and ensemble displayed an intensity of concentration which resulted in a really spectacular performance which was very much appreciated by the audience. (Curious side note: I later learned that an elderly gentleman who sat in front of me and listened with obvious concentration and appreciation throughout the program was in fact a relative of Ms. Musgrave so, at least by that proxy she was there in yet another capacity.) The stage was then set for the west coast premiere of Vivian Fung’s Humanoid for cello and electronics. Here I had the advantage of being able to speak with the evening’s engineer (and electronic co-conspirator) Tom Johnson. This gentleman advised me of his roles in the three pieces which involved technology. Apparently the Fung piece required the most attention and coordination involving a click track. The Shatin piece basically played the electronics in parallel to the orchestra with the coordination largely left (presumably) to the conductor. And the last piece involved projections whose synchronization were not as minutely critical as the other two pieces. Said gentleman was also the recording engineer for this concert.
For this writer the term “electroacoustic” indicates that one should approach such a work with caution. Indeed the success of the integration of electronics and acoustic instruments varies a great deal. Perhaps the best known of such efforts are the pioneering “Synchronisms” of Mario Davidovsky in which various instruments are paired with an electronic track. And these days one must ask if the electronics interacts with or alters the sound of the acoustic instrument or if it exists in parallel. Electroacoustic music has been and remains a huge compositional challenge and no small challenge for the listener.
In the case of Fung’s piece the electronics exist in parallel but carefully synchronized (the soloist does listen to a click track) to the cello score. No alteration of the cello’s sound is done by anyone other than the cellist. So we are then hearing basically a duo between two musical streams, one live, the other on a digital stream of largely concrete sounds and, at one point, a drum kit. Such technical issues can be tiring but the sound of the music was not. According to the composer the piece is in three parts. The cello and the electronics are both equally present in all. In fact the cello seems to be creating sounds that are analogous to the electronic sounds at times and the cellist is given a lot of large romantic sounding gestures which in many ways were not entirely different emotionally than the gestures of the Dvorak. Fung’s work seems, appropriately here in Silicon Valley, to be challenging the human vs. the machine, an increasingly intriguing dichotomy.
It was clearly a challenging piece for the cellist requiring a plethora of techniques and a great deal of virtuosity. Itzkoff handled his role with stern concentration and demonstrated a strong command of both his instrument and the score. He was rewarded with a standing ovation and two curtain calls for his efforts which he gratefully accepted. The program notes indicated that this was Fung’s first major foray into the use of electronics and one hopes not the last.Following intermission was the premiere performance of the work of another established citizen of American music. It was Judith Shatin‘s Ice Becomes Water (2018) commissioned by Barbara Day Turner and the San Jose Chamber Orchestra and is dedicated to them. Shatin is a sound artist as well as a composer meaning that she has mastered the incorporation of a variety of sounds into her compositional palette. In this case she utilized sound samples gathered by glaciologist Oscar Glowacki.
This piece continued the basically pastoral/ecological themes suggested by the earlier works. Again too there was lyricism though the sound images here were, appropriately, colder and more stark than those in some of the other compositions. In fact this composition seemed to have some affinities to the sound world of Musgrave’s work at times but perhaps a bit harsher. What sustained interest here, in addition to the sonic inventiveness of the string writing, was the seamless integration of the sounds into the overall texture. Here the electronics seemed to augment Penderecki like sound mass effects and gave way to gentler clicking sounds (or were they pizzicati?). It was another very intense but very satisfying musical experience for this writer and, by the sound of the applause, the rest of the audience as well. Happily Shatin was there to enjoy the success of this performance and the appreciation of her artistry.To end the program there was a multimedia work by William Susman (1960- ) The work of this composer is new to this reviewer’s ears but not apparently to the music world at large. A quick perusal of Susman’s web page reveals a prolific composer who maintains a busy schedule of composing and performing (including a performance of his recent opera, Fordlandia at the Forth Worth Opera Frontiers Showcase) coming up in May.
The work was a piece entitled, In a State of Patterns (2018) which received its premiere on this night. The work is a series of six movements which are designed to respond (or maybe create musical analogs) to 6 art works created by Santa Clara University mathematician Frank Farris (1955- ).The movements (performed without pause) are: 1. California, the Golden State, 2. The Sierra Nevada, 3. At Home in San Jose, 4. Sierra Tree Death, 5. Spiral Vortex, and 6. The Stars Come Out to Comfort Us.
The photos and mathematical abstractions were projected stage left and more or less synced to the music. This writer is not well schooled in mathematics but the appearance of the images were reminiscent of those never ending fractal drawings which eternally reproduce themselves. Farris apparently extracts the images and colors from photographs. Now whether the music creates successful analogies is probably more relevant to the level of satisfaction that each of the artists feels with their work but the effect in performance was quite satisfying. One can safely say (I think) that the music and the art work both have sufficient merit to stand successfully on their own but the combination was at least intriguing.
Susman’s music draws on some very pleasant minimalist type structures that nonetheless managed to take on almost Wagnerian grandiosity at times. Again the combination of ecology and a sort of high romanticism combined to create a very successful and enjoyable work. The abrupt ending reminiscent of the ensemble performances of Philip Glass provided a stunning coda waking the audience from the beautiful dreams evoked by the six movements. Again we witnessed a powerful and dedicated premiere performance of a wonderful piece of music which appeared to leave the audience quite satisfied. Susman was there to take a much deserved bow.
This was some brilliant programming and excellent musicianship. What an evening!!!
I have made no secret of my passion for the music which has been coming out of the Scandinavian portion of our planet. My knowledge of these musical traditions is mostly limited to the twentieth century up to the present but what a horn of plenty there is to be had. There are so many composers that it is forgivable if one of them fails to get worldwide attention and acclaim during their lifetime. Or is it?
Well if sins of omission that have been committed all can now be forgiven and the memory of Axel Borup-Jørgenson (1924-2012) is likely guaranteed to remain solidly in the history of music of the twentieth century. The Danes take their music very seriously it seems (check out the You Tube Channel for the Danish National Symphony Orchestra if you don’t believe me) and producer Lars Hannibal and his crew have labored tirelessly to bring this formerly obscure master most deservingly to light in this DVD/CD combo pack featuring some of his finest works.
This truly major release contains a DVD with a gorgeous animated feature synced to the late composer’s swan song big orchestral piece, Marin op. 60 (1963-70) a really beautifully produced documentary (“Axel”) on the composer featuring some of his fellow composers including, Finn Savery, Pelle Gudmunsen-Holmgreen, Bent Sørensen, Sunleif Rasmussen, Per Nørgard, Gert Mortensen, Ib Nørholm, Michala Petri, and producer Lars Hannibal along with family and other musicians and producers.
The animated feature looks like one of the finer entries one might find on Vimeo. The animation was done by Lùckow Film and works well with the music. The biographical feature does a spectacular job of placing the composer in context with his Nordic contemporaries and with contemporary music in general. The people interviewed give about as definitive a description of the man’s work as can be done in a film biography and the intervening or connecting scenes bespeak a high level concept of cinematography that makes this film both compelling and a delight for the eyes as well as the mind. The concept of the composer’s use of silence as a compositional tool seems to be reflected in these transitional scenes.
The CD consists of seven carefully selected pieces on seven tracks. The disc opens with the big orchestra piece which was heard behind the animation on the DVD, Marin Op. 60 (1963-70) followed by Music for Percussion and Viola Op. 18 (1955-56), For Cembalo and Orgel Op. 133 (1989), Nachtstuck Op. 181 (1987) (played here by the composer’s daughter, Elisabeth Selin), Winter Pieces Op. 30b (1959) for piano, Pergolato Op. 182 (2011) for treble recorder, and Coast of Sirens Op. 100 (1980-85) for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, guitar, piano, percussion, and multivoice tape. This is truly a balanced portrait with examples of orchestral, solo instrument, keyboard, chamber and electroacoustic works from 1959-2011, a more than fair sampling of the composer’s output both by genre and by time.
The music seems to move between post-romantic tonality and expressionistic experiments such as one hears in the music of Gyorgy Ligeti. The music is evocative and very listenable especially if one avails one’s self of the introductory film. It certainly seemed to tune this reviewer’s ears properly. It is helped as well by some very fine recordings that capture the subtlety of the composer’s work.
Lars Hannibal is clearly the guiding hand in this project but his genius (he is a fine guitarist as well as a producer) is his ability to engage all these fine musicians, artists, producers, and family in what is one of the most loving portraits this writer has ever seen. Now that is the way to blast someone out of obscurity forever.
And this is but one entry in a larger project to record the composer’s complete output. Two previous releases were reviewed on this blog and, presumably there are more to come. But in the meantime there is much to savor here and one hopes that this will introduce this music into the general repertoire. I’m sure Axel would be pleased to be placed as he is now among the masters of Danish composers.
This is heresy. It is not, strictly speaking, faithful to the 1964 score and it is a sort of cultural appropriation which is actually the very basis of Brooklyn Raga Massive, a sort of latter day “Oregon” (to those who recall that band) which takes on all sorts of music and filters it through the unique lens of this flexibly populated group of musicians whose backgrounds range primarily from Hindustani and Carnatic traditions (though hardly in the most classical sense) but also from western classical and jazz. Their “heresy” comes from their choices. The root of heresy is the Greek word, “hairesis” which means choice. There is a lovely selection of their musical heresies on their You Tube Channel.
No this is not purely heresy and it is certainly not blasphemy. Quite the opposite actually. And I would prefer to think of this effort as cultural integration. The choices made here instead lead to some mighty ecstatic music making which pays honor to Terry Riley who turned 80 in 2015 and provides a unique perspective on this classic work.
“In C” (1964) is without doubt Riley’s best known work by far and the one which pretty much defined what would later become known for better or worse as “minimalism”. It is an open score meaning that no instruments are specified for performance making this music heretical in nature as well. In addition there is no conductor’s score as such. Rather there are 53 melodic cells numbered 1 to 53 and the ensemble is held together by the expression of an 8th note pulse played by at least one of the musicians involved. The defining reference on the intricacies of this work is composer/musicologist Robert Carl’s masterful book entitled simply, “In C”. He describes the wide variety of potential choices which can be made in performance and the different results which can be achieved.
There are a great deal of recordings available of this work from the first (released 1968) on Columbia’s “Music of Our Time” series curated by the insightful David Behrman to versions involving a wide variety of instrumental combinations of varying sizes. The first “world music” version this writer has heard is the version for mostly percussion instruments by Africa Express titled, “In C Mali” (released in 2014).
Not surprisingly BRM, as they are known, have chosen a largely Hindustani/Carnatic take on this music. The unprepared listener might easily mistake this for a traditional Indian music recording with the introduction which incorporates a raga scale and adheres to the traditional slow free rhythm improvisation of the introductory “alap” section common to such traditional or classical performances.
The familiar sound of these (largely) South Asian instruments with their rich harmonics sets the tone gently. This writer has at best a perfunctory working knowledge of these complex and beautiful musical traditions but one must surmise that the choice of Raga Bihag may have some intended meaning. Indeed such music is by definition integrated into the larger cosmology of Hinduism, the Vedas, the Gita, the Sanskrit language, and, no doubt other references. This is not discussed in the brief liner notes but is worthy perhaps as a future interview question.
It appears that many of the musical decisions were made by sitarist Neel Murgai though it becomes clear as the performance develops that individual soloists are allowed wonderful improvisational freedoms at various points. The recording is intelligently divided to let the listener know which set of melodic cells is being expressed at a given time.
The alap gives way to the sound of the tablas which initiate the pulse mentioned earlier. The structure of this piece produces a range of musical experiences from a sort of didactic beginning to the swirling psychedelic waves of sound which stereotypically define much of the music born in the mid 1960s in this country. In fact Terry Riley’s deep study of South Asian musics (most famously under vocalist Pandit Pran Nath) did not occur until later in his career. Nonetheless there seems to have always been some affinity between Riley’s vision and the sort of music whose popularity was driven in the United States most famously by the efforts such as Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rakha in the 1970s.
What follows is a riot of musical ecstasy involving some inspired improvisational riffs and some stunning vocalizations as well giving us a fascinating take on this music which was written well before these musicians came into the world. We have a later generation paying homage to the beloved American composer and to the beautiful traditions of their own eclectic ethnic heritage.
The set concludes in this live and lively recording with a traditional fast paced Jhalla, the traditional ending to classical Indian musical performances. This will likely become known as the “Indian” recording of “In C” but it is so much more than that. It is an homage. It is a look back from the view of at least a couple of generations of artists. And it is heresy in the best sense of that word, choices made judiciously to achieve higher artistic goals. Not all art is heresy and not all heresy is art but the heresies perpetrated here definitely deserve our ears.
The heretics are: Neel Murgai, Sitar and Vocal; Arun Ramamurthy, Violin; Andrew Shantz, Vocal; Josh Geisler, Bansuri; Sameer Gupta, Tabla; Roshni Samlal, Tabla; Eric Fraser, Bansuri; Timothy Hill, vocal; Trina Basu, Violin; Ken Shoji, Violin; Kane Mathis, Oud; Adam Malouf, Cello; Michael Gam, Bass; Lauren Crump, Cajon; David Ellenbogen, Guitar; Max ZT, Hammered Dulcimer; Vin Scialla, Riq and Frame Drum; Aaron Shragge, Dragon Mouth Trumpet.
This latest release by Howard Hersh reveals more of his range as a composer. His previous release focused on one large concerted work for piano and chamber orchestra as well as some virtuosic writing for piano and for harpsichord. This disc (worth a listen if only for the return engagement of the pianism of Brenda Tom) focuses on some smaller chamber ensembles and a look at the composer’s more impressionistic moods.
This writer is left with the notion that each piece seems to be an intimate telling of a story. Though the stories are not explicit, each piece has a distinct narrative character. Mary Rowell handles the multi-track violin parts on Madam’s Tavern (2014). The piece has an almost symphonic character evoking a variety of styles and meandering most pleasantly through a musical narrative whose details are not as important as the fact that the piece engages very successfully on a purely musical level. It is written for solo violin with a chorus of some 15 tracks of violin accompanying.
Loop (2006) is a sort of cyclic quasi-minimalist work featuring Jonah Kim on cello, Brenda Tom (gently) on piano, and Patricia Niemi on vibraphone. It is a dream-like, perhaps even impressionistic piece whose structure and compositional techniques serve the end goal of being a charming aural object.
I Love You Billy Danger (2012) was written for pianist Brenda Tom. Here she demonstrates her virtuosity and her dramatic and dynamic range in a piece which, though related to Liszt according to the liner notes, seems to evoke the rather Lisztian master Frederic Rzewski as well. Tom is at her fines with this challenging work and she conveys the narrative well.
Night (2013) seems related to the earlier Loop by virtue of being a percussion piece but also by its gentle evocation of a shimmering musical narrative punctuated with a clarinet part that alternately hides within the percussive sounds and comes wailing out in jazzy/bluesy moments. This writer was left with the notion of Gershwin haunting the score (but maybe that is because this review is being written in the Halloween season). José González Granero is on clarinet, Patricia Niemi on marimba, and Nick Matthiessen on percussion.
Dancing at the Pink House (2006) is a musical narrative for clarinet and piano that Hersh has featured as a teaser on his website. It was written for Patricia Shands, clarinet and is accompanied by James Winn on piano. Shands is the owner of said Pink House and she seems to be having a lot of fun with this playful but substantial piece. Both of these musicians appeared on Hersh’s 2007 CD release, Pony Concerto (Albany Records).
Dancing at the Pink House is a valuable addition to Hersh’s discography and reveals more of his range as a composer. This is a highly entertaining recording and leaves the listener wanting more.
Mischa Zupko (1971- ) is a composer, a pianist, and a professor of music at Chicago’s De Paul University. He is the son of avant garde composer Ramon Zupko (1932- ). Mischa’s work featured on this Cedille release suggests that the proverbial apple has fallen quite a distance from the family musical tree. That is neither bad nor good but it is striking.
The elder Zupko’s work, despite its significance, is too little known. A few recordings exist on the old CRI recordings label and this writer recalls being impressed by them. According to the Chicago Reader article he really didn’t want his son to go into the music business but apparently what is in the blood is in the blood. A curious note too is that one can find articles on both these composers on Wikipedia but not the English/American one, rather curiously both are to be found on the Dutch Wikipedia site.
The present disc is apparently the first dedicated entirely to this emerging composer’s work (now numbering some 50 pieces). It is a disc of chamber music and from the first the listener is immediately aware that the younger Zupko is possessed of a sort of retro romantic bent. Think of the great virtuoso composer/pianists of the 19th century like Franz Liszt and Anton Rubinstein. He does gratefully acknowledge his father as inspiration but clearly follows a different path.
This music is about passion and virtuosity. The composer defines this clearly in his liner notes. The performers Mischa Zupko on piano, Wendy Warner on cello, and Sang Mee Lee on violin demonstrate both passion and virtuosity on this lucid recording. They play very well together and they all have ample opportunities to show off their respective skills.
There are seven works on ten tracks dating from 2005 to 2015. The first five tracks consist of “Rising” (violin and piano, 2009), “Fallen” (cello and piano, 2010), “From Twilight” (solo violin, 2015), “Eclipse” (violin and cello, 2014), and, “Nebula” (solo cello, 2015).
There then follows the four movement”Shades of Grey” (2005) for violin and piano. This is the earliest work on the disc but stylistically it is consistent with the rest of the disc. Zupko certainly develops as a composer but his style seems pretty firmly established.
The last track seems to be the big feature here. “Love Obsession” (cello, piano, 6 pre-recorded cello tracks; 2013) is perhaps the most adventurous and grand of the works on this recording. As with the other works on the disc the composer cites various literary influences and inspirations consistent with the apparently romantic ethic which seems to drive his creativity. And as with the other tracks we hear a tonal romantic idiom filled with passion.
My title for this review is not intended to suggest that the younger Zupko has surpassed his father in any way except perhaps in that his work has, whether by accident, timing, design, or whatever, gotten more attention. This is not a case of Johann Strauss Jr. and Sr. in jealous competition, this is simply another generation responding to it’s muse and that is worth celebrating.
Nominally this was a celebration of the life and music of Lou Silver Harrison (1917-2003) but this last concert of Other Minds 22nd year celebrated so much more.
One can’t celebrate the life and music of Lou Harrison without acknowledging his life partner of 30 years, Bill Colvig (1917-2000). Colvig was the man who designed and built the American Gamelan percussion instruments used in tonight’s performance. These repurposed industrial materials were inspired by the Indonesian Gamelan which Lou Harrison encountered at the 1939 world’s fair which took place on Treasure Island just a few miles away. Amirkhanian added another fascinating historical footnote when he informed the audience that Harrison had come to this very church to learn to sing Gregorian Chant some time in the 1930s.
A further and very intimate context was revealed when Amirkhanian took an informal poll of the audience asking who had met and/or worked with Lou Harrison. By his count he estimated that about 40% of the audience had encountered “St. Lou” (this writer met the magnanimous gentleman in Chicago in the early 1990s). Indeed many of the musicians had encountered and/or studied with Harrison and the passion reflected in their performances and the audiences response clearly shows why he (and Bill) were elevated tonight to secular sainthood.
The wonderful acoustics of the Basilica easily accommodated Harrison’s dislike of electrical amplification. Even the solo and small ensemble music was heard as it was intended.
The well attended concert began with an early rather uncharacteristic piece called Praises for Michael the Archangel (1946-7). It reflected the influence of Arnold Schoenberg, one of Harrison’s teachers (Henry Cowell and K.T.H. Notoprojo were also among his teachers). Harrison also famously worked with Charles Ives whose Third Symphony he premiered. He also worked with John Cage and collaborated on at least one composition with him (Double Music). The angular and dissonant sounds were lovingly interpreted by Jerome Lenk, organist and chorus master at the Basilica.
Next was a solo harp piece Threnody for Oliver Daniel (1990). (Oliver Daniel (1911-1990) was a composer, musicologist, and founder of Composer’s Recording Incorporated. He was a friend of Harrison’s and a great promoter of new music).
Meredith Clark played with focused concentration and gave a very moving performance of this brief and beautiful composition. Harrison was fond of paying homage to his friends through music.
Clark was then joined by cellist Emil Miland for a performance of Suite for Cello and Harp (1948). Composed just a year after the angular organ piece which opened the program this gentle suite is entirely tonal and very lyrical in its five movements using music repurposed from earlier works. Clark here used a full sized concert harp.
The artistic connection between these performers clearly added to the intensity of the performance. Despite the varied sources of the music the suite has a certain unity that, like Bach and indeed many composers, justifies the re-use of material in the creation of a new piece.
This was followed by another organ piece from Mr. Lenk. This Pedal Sonata (1989) is played solely by the musician’s very busy feet on the pedals alone (no hands on the keyboard). Listening to the piece it was easy to believe that more than just two agile feet were involved in this challenging and virtuosic composition. It appeared to be quite a workout but one accomplished with great ease by the performer.
Following an extended intermission (owing to a dearth of restroom facilities) there was an awards ceremony. Charles Amirkhanian was awarded the 2017 Champion of New Music Award (tonight’s conductor Nicole Paiement was also a previous awardee). Presentation of the award was done by American Composer’s Forum President and CEO John Neuchterlein and Forum member, composer Vivian Fung.
Amirkhanian took the time to pay tribute to his mother (who also would have been 100 this year) his father (who passed away in December at the age of 101) and his charming wife of 49 years, Carol Law, who continues her work as a photographer and her participation in Other Minds and related projects. He also gave thanks to the staff of Other Minds and his former associates at KPFA where Charles served as music director for over 20 years.
In a touching and humorous move Mr. Neuchterlein advised the audience that Mr. Amirkhanian would be given yet another award tied to Minnesota which is the home of General Mills (yes, the cereal people). Amirkhanian (who himself has quite a gentle sense of humor) was surprised and charmed to receive a box of Wheaties emblazoned with his image from whence he can now reign in the rarefied group of breakfast champions in addition to his other roles.
The second half of the concert began with the co-composed Suite for Violin and American Gamelan (1974). Co-composer Richard Dee was in the audience for the performance of this work written two years after La Koro Sutro (1972) and incorporating the same gamelan instrument created for that piece. The substantial violin solo was handled with assurance and expressivity by Shalini Vijayan, herself a major new music advocate.
At about 30 minutes in performance the multiple movements all but comprised a concerto with challenging roles for both the percussion orchestra led by the amazing William Winant and his percussion ensemble and the soloist. All were masterfully coordinated by conductor Nicole Paiement.
In a previous promo blog I had noted that the location of this concert is a designated pilgrimage site, one where the faithful journey as part of a spiritual quest. Well, having been sidelined by a foot injury for the last 3 1/2 months this amounted to a musico-spiritual pilgrimage for this writer who has not been able to be out to hear music for some time. The last piece on the concert in particular was a powerful motivation for this personal pilgrimage and I was not disappointed.
The American Gamelan was played by the William Winant percussion group consisting of master percussionist Winant along with Ed Garcia, Jon Meyers, Sean Josey, Henry Wilson, and Sarong Kim.
They were joined by the Resound Choir (Luçik Aprahämian, Music Director), Sacred and Profane (Rebecca Seeman, Music Director), and the Mission Dolores Choir (Jerome Lenk, Music Director).
Meredith Clark joined on concert harp and Mr. Lenk on the small ensemble organ. All were conducted with both discipline and panache by Nicole Paiement.
This multiple movement work is a setting of the Buddhist Heart Sutra and is done in an Esperanto translation by fellow Esperantist Bruce Kennedy and, though written for the world Esperanto Convention in Portland, Oregon, it was premiered at the University of San Francisco in 1972. This was the fourth performance in the Bay Area, a fact that reveals the love that this area has had and still has for its beloved citizen Lou Harrison.
In fact this concert can be seen as a affirmation of so many things. Harrison was a composer, teacher, dancer, calligrapher, Esperantist, conductor, musician, musicologist and early gay rights advocate. It is a testament to Lou that he has been given a most spectacular birthday celebration which gave credence and appreciation to all aspects of this west coast genius and all his extended family. It happened 50 years after the fabled Summer of Love and apparently the love continues in its way.
Esperanto is a constructed language brought into being in an 1887 book by a Polish-Jewish doctor by the name of L. L. Zamenhof (1861-1917). This constructed language was intended in part as an intellectual exercise which might contribute to greater international discourse and perhaps understanding. He outlined his intentions as follows:
- “To render the study of the language so easy as to make its acquisition mere play to the learner.”
- “To enable the learner to make direct use of his knowledge with persons of any nationality, whether the language be universally accepted or not; in other words, the language is to be directly a means of international communication.”
- “To find some means of overcoming the natural indifference of mankind, and disposing them, in the quickest manner possible, and en masse, to learn and use the proposed language as a living one, and not only in last extremities, and with the key at hand.
Esperanto did gain a great deal of popularity and there are still adherents today (an estimated 2 million people worldwide). Lou Harrison was one of the users of this language (users are known as “Esperantists”).
In 1966 a horror film, “Incubus”, written and directed by Leslie Stevens (of Outer Limits fame) was released starring the just pre-Star Trek William Shatner. Once thought lost, this film was restored from a copy found in a French film library. It was only the second (and apparently last) feature film done entirely in Esperanto (the first being the 1964 French production, “Angoroj” or Agonies). It was thought that the use of Esperanto would add a mysterious dimension to the production though detractors challenged the actors’ ability to properly pronounce the dialogue. A link to a Shatner scene is here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=accFmyaOj7o
And if you want to sit through the entire film (definitely a cult film experience) you can find it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHUfHj2lTaM
Curiously 1917, the year of Dr. Zamenhof’s death, is also the birth year of Lou Harrison, the principal subject of this essay. This patriarch of 20th century modernism was a composer, conductor, musicologist, performer, teacher, dancer, calligrapher, and Esperantist. He used Esperanto to title many of his works and set some Esperanto texts to music.
And the Buddha Becomes an Esperantist
In his masterful big composition, La Koro Sutro (1972) translated portions of the text of the Buddhist Heart Sutra (into Esperanto) are set for mixed chorus and American Gamelan. Gamelan is an Indonesian mostly percussion orchestra which Harrison studied extensively following the example of pioneering Canadian ethnomusicologist and composer Colin McPhee (1900-1964).
Gamelan was first introduced to western audiences at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair where composers such as Claude Debussy and Erik Satie heard the instruments and later incorporated some of those sounds in their music. (That Gamelan now resides in Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.) Harrison’s life partner Bill Colvig, an instrument maker, constructed a percussion ensemble which they called the American Gamelan to differentiate it from the traditional Indonesian ensemble. The American Gamelan, consisting of five percussion instruments (augmented with organ, harp, and chorus) was first used in the cantata La Koro Sutro.
This composition is very much a synthesis of the composer’s musical and philosophical ideas. Harrison was an avowed pacifist and the Heart Sutra is a key Buddhist scripture which supports introspection and non-violence. Here he uses his expertise as an esperantist, his knowledge of Indonesian as well as western classical music to create one of his largest and finest works.
It is a testament to Harrison’s influence that this is the fourth performance of La Koro Sutro in the Bay Area. It was written for an Esperanto conference in Seattle in 1972 with a translation by fellow esperantist Bruce Kennedy and was premiered that same year at Lone Mountain College in San Francisco (now part of the University of San Francisco). Additional performances (available on You Tube) were staged in Berkeley in 1973 and again in 2012. This is truly an American masterpiece as well as a prayer for our times.
The performances will take place in the Mission San Francisco de Asís Basilica, better known as Mission Dolores. The mission was founded in 1776 and the still active small adobe church next to the Basilica, built in 1791, is the oldest surviving building in San Francisco. The much larger Basilica next to the adobe church (and the actual location of said concert) was dedicated in 1918.
For the record, a Basilica is a reference to both architectural and spiritual aspects of any church so designated. In the Catholic Church a Basilica is a pilgrimage site, a place to which the faithful travel in a spiritual quest. I don’t believe it is too much of a stretch to view this event as a musico-spiritual pilgrimage open to all ears and minds, and hearts. You won’t come out speaking Esperanto but you will never forget what you’ve heard.
The program will include:
Threnody for Oliver Daniel for harp (1990)
Suite for Cello & Harp (1948)
Meredith Clark, harp
Emil Miland, cello
Pedal Sonata for Organ (1987/1989) Praises for Michael the Archangel (1946-47)
Jerome Lenk, organ
Suite for Violin & American Gamelan (1974, composed with Richard Dee)
Shalini Vijayan, violin
William Winant Percussion Group
La Koro Sutro (The Heart Sutra, 1972)
For large mixed chorus, organ, harp, and American Gamelan
The Mission Dolores Choir, Resound, Jerome Lenk, organ, Meredith Clark, harp, and the William Winant Percussion Group conducted by Nicole Paiement.
Saturday, May 20, 2017- 7:30 p.m.
Mission Dolores Basilica
3321 16th St.
San Francisco, CA
The very affordable tickets ($12-$20) are available at:
Revido tie. (See you there.)