Lou Harrison: Concerto for Piano and Gamelan, a very special performance of an underappreciated masterpiece


This Lou Harrison (1917-2003) concerto is one of his lesser known works largely due to the unusual instrumentation and the labors needed to tune the piano to the gamelan orchestra. A quick search revealed previous recordings, one by its dedicatee, Belle Bulwinkle with the Bay Area New Gamelan (BANG) recorded at Mills College (and overseen by Jody Diamond) from 1992 (now out of print) and one by pianist Adrienne Varner with Gamelan Pacifica (artists who participated with Harrison during his residency at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle) on New World records from 2012.

As a dedicated Harrison fan, I can’t imagine why this work is not better known. It is, in fact, Harrison’s second piano concerto, the first being his 1985 concerto for piano and orchestra. This first concerto has received two recordings by Keith Jarrett (the concerto’s dedicatee) and, more recently by Joanna MacGregor. This concerto also requires tuning the piano but to a just intonation scale, not to the orchestra as in the second concerto. All these recordings were made with significant collaboration with the composer. And here now is a chance to hear this second concerto in a new and defining recording by the next generation of musicians, all of whom have had significant and long term relationships with Mr. Harrison.

The details and complexities of tuning and notation are beyond the scope of this review and, indeed, beyond the expertise of this writer. But suffice it to say that though the performers must run quite a gauntlet of complexity, the listener will likely find this music very accessible. I have included a link here to a PDF of the original score for those who want that sort of detail but this is simply beautiful music when well executed as it is here in this performance.

This new recording of the Concerto for Piano and Gamelan was performed and recorded at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2017, part of the celebration of Harrison’s centennial. It was one of many such celebrations worldwide of a true American master.

Copy of the title page of the score which also shows the composer’s skillful calligraphy.

This 1986-7 work is from a very productive period in Harrison’s life and demonstrates his deep understanding of writing music for Javanese Gamelan which he studied for many years in Indonesia and later with Jody Diamond. His mixing of western classical music with that of other cultures is one of his claims to fame as is his interest and application of non-traditional tunings and scales. This concerto is one of many pieces he wrote for gamelan and western instruments during the aforementioned residency at the Cornish School in Seattle, Washington.

One of the most striking things about Lou Harrison for this writer has been his connectedness. He was collaborative and very inclusive. He touched many lives via his composition, his teaching, and his general openness to others. Harrison was born in 1917 in Portland, Oregon and this recording is a document of one of the many centennial celebrations of his music which occurred world wide. At one of those events, Other Minds 22, held at the beautiful Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco (a church where Harrison went to learn to sing Gregorian Chants as a young man) the master of ceremonies, Charles Amirkhanian took an informal poll of the large audience. He simply asked how many people there had met Lou Harrison. Indeed about 2/3 of the audience raised their hands (this writer included).

Harrison was very connected and his influence continues, a fact very much in evidence in this release. This is one of those discs I would buy just for the performers. Sarah Cahill, Jody Diamond, and Evan Ziporyn are all highly accomplished performers, all with deep connections to Mr. Harrison. Cahill, a very fine pianist with an encyclopedic knowledge and real feeling for modern repertoire, can always be counted upon to provide definitive, exciting interpretations of music which deserves to be heard. Her facility with west coast composers as well as her collaborative relationship with many of them makes her an ideal choice to play scores by the likes of Terry Riley, Dane Rudhyar, Henry Cowell, John Adams, Frederic Rzewski, Pauline Oliveros, Ingram Marshall, and Lou Harrison to name just a few.

Cahill writes in the wonderful liner notes:

“One of the great pleasures of studying Harrison’s music involves his community, as his friends and colleagues have continued his legacy and performance practice. For the Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan, I consulted Belle Bulwinkle, to whom the concerto is dedicated, and met with musicians with the most intimate knowledge of Harrison’s music, including Robert Hughes and William Winant. Best of all was performing the piece with Jody Diamond, who worked so closely with Harrison on his gamelan compositions and was so essential to the premiere in 1987, and with Evan Ziporyn, who has championed Harrison’s music for decades. Our work together culminated in performing and recording at the Cleveland Museum of Art, which brings together its extraordinary collections of Eastern and Western art “for the benefit of all the people forever.” It’s hard to imagine a better home for Lou Harrison’s concerto.”

The Pasadena, CA born Jody Diamond is a composer/performer and scholar who has worked with Gamelan for many years. She was one of the founding members of Gamelan Son of Lion, an American Gamelan ensemble which continues to play traditional music and collaborations with western contemporary composers. She studied gamelan in Indonesia on a Fulbright Fellowship. Diamond writes in the liner notes regarding her relationship with Harrison:

“Jody, you better go help Lou, because he won’t know what all the instruments are supposed to do.” This instruction from my teacher, the eminent K. P. H. Notoprojo, followed his 1976 invitation to Lou Harrison to compose for a Javanese gamelan. This was the beginning of my relationship with Lou, one that would continue until his death in 2003. During that time, I was Harrison’s gamelan teacher, orchestrator, music director, publisher, and friend. Lou and his life partner, Bill Colvig, were the witnesses at my wedding and “honorary Grandpas” to my daughter.

Evan Ziporyn, born in Chicago, Illinois, is the only Midwesterner in the group but his connections and musical proclivities make him a very comfortable fit with Diamond and Cahill. He is a composer, clarinet and saxophone player and, wait for it, a gamelan player. He studied gamelan in Indonesia with the same person who introduced Colin McPhee (1900-1964) to gamelan. McPhee is known for having been the first westerner to do an ethnomusicological study of gamelan. Ziporyn is the founder and director of MIT’s Gamelan Galak Tika which counts Jody Diamond as a former member.

The concerto is cast in three movements much as in the classical style. The first movement is entitled “Bull’s Belle” and is the longest of the three movements. The piano takes the lead and the gamelan enters at first almost unnoticed as its gentle tinkling notes seem as if they come from the piano. This is not the classical call and response between soloist and orchestra best displayed in the classical era (think Mozart) but rather an integration much closer in ways to a baroque concerto grosso where the solo instrument is not as clearly differentiated from the other instruments (think Bach). The piano writing is generally rather muscular and Brahmsian but the sound will remind listeners of the music of Alan Hovhaness and even echoes of Keith Jarrett’s solo improvisatory efforts.

The second movement is without a title. The gamelan opens with its gentle chime like percussions and the piano enters almost surreptitiously mirroring the entrances which occurred in the first movement. Like a classical concerto this is a slower movement with a more lyrical and overall less virtuosic feel.

The third and final movement is entitled, “Belle’s Bull”, begins with the gamelan entering first and then the piano. This movement has a lighter feel overall than the grand first movement and even introduces some minimalist repetition passages.

All told this is a performance against which all subsequent performances should be measured. It is a fitting tribute to Lou Harrison, his instrument builder and life partner Bill Colvig as well as a landmark in the performing careers of Cahill, Diamond, and Ziporyn.

Portraits of William Colvig (l) and Lou Harrison (r) displayed at the Lou Harrison centennial celebration at Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco in 2017.

Concertante Music for Flute and Clarinet


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This release is a fine example of a record label fulfilling its mission by highlighting local talent while also making very intelligent selections of repertoire.  Cedille is one of those labels whose every release is worthy of your attention.  Here is a good example of why that is so. We have here four works for the rather uncommon combination of flute and clarinet with orchestra.  Concerti for multiple instruments probably began with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti but this combination of flute and clarinet limits the repertoire choices considerably.  Nonetheless the folks at Cedille have gathered two 21st century pieces, one from the high romanticism of the late 19th century and a seldom heard gem from the late 18th century, all for these two instruments accompanied by orchestra.

Just for local interest let’s also add an opportunity for a local youth orchestra to show their considerable talents.  The Chicago Youth Symphony under conductor Allan Tinkham demonstrates the remarkably polished and mature sound of this local gem (Cedille is a Chicago label).  And Cedille, in its support of black musicians brings this marvelous pair of brothers with their expertise as soloists.  All in all a classic Cedille style release, intelligent choice of repertoire, promotion of young artists, promotion of artists of color, and quality recordings.

The disc opens with the world premiere recording of the eponymous single movement work, “Winged Creatures” (2018) by one Michael Abels (1962- ).  It is essentially a 12 minute concertante for the soloists with orchestra.  Abels is best known for having scored the brilliant horror genre film “Get Out” from 2017 (if you haven’t seen it, do make a note to yourself).

Winged Creatures is a well written mini concerto which, despite its recent vintage, tends toward a sort of neo-romantic sound.  The composer gives ample opportunity for the soloists to show their mettle and for the orchestra to demonstrate its facility with the music.  It is a delightful showpiece which seems to have a cinematic feel to it.

Next up, and this is typical of the acumen of the folks at Cedille, is a full blown, heretofore unknown (practically) Sinfonia Concertante from a lesser known contemporary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  Franz Danzi 1763-1826).  This double concerto for flute, clarinet, and orchestra was published in 1813 and sounds like Mozart and/or early Beethoven.  It is a highly entertaining piece, one which listeners will delight in hearing again.  Who knows this piece could become a sensation in the concert hall once again.  It’s about 22 minutes in length.

The third piece is an early work by French composer, pianist, organist, Charles Camille Saint-Saens (1836-1921).  Tarantella Op. 6 (1857) was written in when the composer was only 22 years old.  This is hardly one of his best works but it is a curiosity worthy of being heard and, like most of this composer’s work, it is eminently listenable.

Finally, we have another large scale concerto (and the second world premiere on the disc), “Concert Duo” (2012) by Joel Puckett (1977- ).  In gestures classical, jazzy, contemporary, but as listenable as anything on this release, Puckett’s work in three movements has tantalizing titles for each of the movements suggesting a wealth of non-musical references.

The ample liner notes provide the listener with a guide to the joys to be heard  on this collection and the recording, as usual with this label is lucid.  You can’t go wrong with this one.

J. P. Jofre Double Concerto


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This writer’s first encounter with a bandoneon was the electroacoustic “cybersonic bandoneon” of Gordon Mumma from about 1966.  In fact the instrument has its origins around the beginning of the 20th century.  It is a small accordion-like instrument which relies on the performer operating a bellows while pushing buttons on the instrument which force air past reeds which vibrate at their tuned pitch.  It is a folk instrument in Germany and Argentina where it became best known as the workhorse of the tango bands of the time where it continues to be popular.

It’s appearance in the avant garde with experimentalists such as Mumma did occur but the instrument became best known through the work of Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992) who incorporated tango in much the way Aaron Copland incorporated American folk songs into his classical works.  Despite his popularization of the instrument it remains largely just one of the instruments in local tango bands and the classical world appears to have largely withdrawn its interest since Piazzolla’s passing.

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Juan Pablo Jofre (from his web site)

Well along comes native Argentinian Juan Pablo Jofre Romarion (1983- ) who appears to want to change that.  In addition to running his own tango band and promoting the music of his predecessor Piazzolla he now ventures into the classical realm with no less than a double concerto for bandoneon (of course) and violin.

Now this is not the avant garde stylings of the 1960s and 70s such as that typified by Gordon Mumma.  It is also not the sort of experimentation done by Piazzolla as he incorporated his native folk musics into the realm of the classical stage.  Instead we have a classically trained virtuoso bandoneon player forging his own style which is in fact quite listenable and seems to be treading a path of significance that may rival his teachers and mentors.  If you need a category for this disc try neo-romantic or just world music.

It is not difficult to imagine Jofre writing for the instrument of his own virtuosity but he also manages to write a substantial part for the other instrument in this double concerto, a violin.  He engages Belgian classical violinist Michael Guttman to share the stage in this large and substantial composition from 2016-17 and gives him a great deal to do.

Jofre has distinguished himself as one of the important interpreters of tango with his own band and, in particular, the works of Astor Piazzolla.  Now we get to hear the next phase of this emerging artist as he ventures into the world of the classical stage bringing his diminutive folk instrument to the fore.

In this tasty little recording we get to hear two highly skilled soloists and none other than the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra who do justice to Mr. Jofre’s first (and one hopes not the last) concerto for bandoneon and violin with chamber orchestra.  It is difficult to say if Jofre is going to be able to handle large musical forms (like symphonies, opera for example) but he is quite adept at writing for these three to five minute movements which constitute the concerto’s structure.

Jofre is at his best writing for the two solo instruments and some of it is ravishingly beautiful.  All of it is quite listenable and one must surmise that Jofre is a rising star with great talent and that he will continue to write music of this quality and passion.  It would be wonderful to hear more of the possibilities of combining the bandoneon with other classical instruments, maybe a concerto for accordion and bandoneon (of course the possibilities are boundless).  Clearly this is just the beginning for this emerging artist who seems poised to take on the mantle of Argentina’s other great tango composer, Astor Piazzolla both in his compositional and performance skills.

This substantial concerto (which chooses to split the outer movements into two parts) covers five of the six tracks on this disc.  The remaining three tracks are for bandoneon and violin.  These duos provide a glimpse of the powerful and intimate nature of Jofre’s compositional skills.  This is beautiful music and here’s hoping  that this disc will be the start of a mini renaissance of tango, Piazzola, etc.

It may be some time before the bandoneon is a common instrument in classical concert halls (or maybe it will never become common) but there is no doubt that Jofre’s instrument and his music deserve serious attention.  I would stay tuned if I were you.

Louisville Orchestra Reboot on CD: All In


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The Louisville Orchestra was established in 1937 and its history has been wonderfully told in a 2010 documentary entitled, Music Makes a City.  Since their founding they released about 150 LPs containing new and interesting music not available anywhere else.  Many of those recordings have become available on the Albany CD label but the orchestra hasn’t released a new recording in about 30 years.

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Teddy Abrams

Along comes new music director, composer, clarinetist Teddy Abrams and now we are graced with a new recording on the Decca Gold label.  Now for a reboot this release is somewhat conservative in it’s musical choices but that’s not to say it isn’t interesing.  This recording, released also in commemoration of the orchestra’s 80th season, reflects a sincere effort to draw younger audiences to the concert hall.

This auspicious release contains as its opening Abrams’ Unified Field, a finely crafted four movement work that channels the late Aaron Copland and his ilk.  It’s style is inflected with elements of jazz and other so called “vernacular” music but it incorporates those styles in much the way that Copland and his contmporaries incorporated folk song as well as jazz/pop rhythms. It is virtually a symphony in its dimensions and is highly entertaining while remaining seriously classical and very finely crafted.  The year of it’s composition is not specified in the notes this writer received but best guess is that it is of recent vintage in this talented composer’s oeuvre.

This is followed, curiously, by three torch songs, one by the able soloist Storm Large, one by Cole Porter, and one by Teddy Abrams.  The stylistic unity of these three songs is striking and Storm Large (who is known for her work with Pink Martini) is a convincing chanteuse.

These are followed by another American masterpiece, the Clarinet Concerto (1948) by Aaron Copland.  Originally written (and subsequently recorded by) Benny Goodman, the concerto is definitely in the repertoire but receives far too few hearings in concert.  This writer had not heard the concerto in many years and was struck both by its quality and by the convincing performance recorded here.  Abrams takes the solo role and the orchestra is conducted with assurance by one Jason Seber.

Abrams’ reading is as convincing and authentic as any and this is a delightful way to close this wonderful recording.  Here’s hoping that this release will be the restart of Louisvilled great recorded legacy and that Abrams tenure as conductor will breath new life into an orchestra which has become a venerable part of America’s cultural history.

 

 

Oceanus Procellarum: Gareth Davis and Elliot Sharp


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I recall excitedly taking a class in college in the late 70s which dealt with post 1950 composition.  The professor emphasized that the reigning characteristic of this music is “pluralism”, that is to say that anything goes and one gets less useful information from labels like, “classical”, “baroque”, “romantic”, “post-romantic”, “post-modern”, etc.  There is no question that this maxim remains very true and we now are seeing composers well-versed in virtually every technique known to the world of composition.

This album is a fine example of such pluralism.  Seeing names such as Elliott Sharp and Gareth Davis one might expect something of the “free jazz” genre and that would not necessarily be an inaccurate description.  But it would fail to capture the wonderful writing for Ensemble Resonanz by the eclectic (yes, pluralistic too) Elliott Sharp.  As a composer Sharp draws on late twentieth century modern/post-modern compositional techniques along with a fair amount of his own creative innovations gleaned from his own experimentation and, no doubt, from his exposure to the wildly creative milieu of the Downtown New York scene of the 80s and 90s.

The result is like listening to shades of Penderecki and Xenakis as they wrote in the late 1950s though the 70s.  This is far more homage than derivation however and the achievement here is how well the soloists on guitar and bass clarinet fit into the work as a whole.  They fit remarkably well.

This could easily be called “Symphony for Ensemble with Obligatto Guitar and Bass Clarinet” or even Concerto if you like.  The point is that Sharp is an engaging composer whose works are very substantial.  From his beginnings on the New York Downtown scene with its mix of jazz, experimental and classical he has continued to explore and grow as a composer and that is what ultimately makes this release so compelling.

The musicianship here from Ensemble Resonanz, Sharp and Davis is of the first order and there is a certain sense of a tight fit such that, whatever may be improvised here sounds as though it were carefully written into this large orchestral fabric.  This is a powerful piece of music and repeated listenings will doubtless reveal more and more depth.  This is a very engaging piece.

Sharp is clearly evolving and growing as a composer and still hasn’t lost his marvelous collaborative and improvisatorial abilities.  This is a major work and a lovely recording.

 

 

 

Finding Angels, Energetic Eclecticism from Howard Hersh


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Howard Hersh (1940- ) studied music and earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees at Stanford University.  He is a California native and he succeeded Charles Amirkhanian as music director at KPFA.  His Pony Concerto (2005), Braided River Nights (2004) and Sonata for Violin and Percussion with String Bass obligato (2000) were released on Albany Records in 2007 and his Dancing at the Pink House (2006) is available as a free download on Bandcamp.

I had not been familiar with Mr. Hersh’s music when I agreed to review this disc but I found that liked it immediately and it made my  list of favorite releases for 2014. The  featured piece here is the Concerto for Piano and Ten Instruments (2008) and it is a tour de force.  Hersh writes in a tonal idiom that sounds to this reviewer’s ears like a mix of Conlon Nancarrow and Francis Poulenc.  This concerto is virtuosic in the extreme but not the empty virtuosity of the romantic composer pianists (Anton Rubinstein bores me to tears).  This work in three movements sounds very difficult to play but manages to remain playful and entertaining, never taking itself too seriously.  Pianist Brenda Tom does a fantastic job (she must have fingers of steel) and is very ably supported by the small ensemble conducted by Barbara Day Turner.  Rapid attacks, scales and arpeggios keep the soloist very busy and the ensemble clearly listens and collaborates in what is an electrifying performance.

The other pieces on the disc are a sort of strange contrast to the concerto.  First is a suite for harpsichord, Angels and Watermarks (2004) was composed during Hersh’s residency at the Djerassi Arts Center.  The piece is in five movements and is a significant contribution to the contemporary literature for that instrument.  Cast in the manner of a baroque suite, each movement plays on familiar forms.  The first movement is a ponderous prelude which is followed by a playful moto perpetuo, a gentle lullaby, then a spectacular jazz inflected toccata and finally a sort of non-literal recapitulation of the prelude.  Again we are treated to the dynamic keyboard work of Brenda Tom who executes each movement flawlessly and with great expressiveness.

The final work on the disc is Dream (2012)  which the composer (who wrote the liner notes) says is his exploration of how to incorporate tonal harmony in his work.  It is a soft, slow meandering piece in which he manages to make his explorations into a beautiful and restful work.  Brenda Tom is the dedicatee of both this and the harpsichord suite and she demonstrates her ability to work with soft expressive textures.

All in all a great CD which will delight any new music fan.  It is available from CD Baby and Amazon.  Highly recommended.