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.

Modern Tuning Scholarship, Authentic Bach Performance: Daniel Lippel’s “Aufs Lautenwerk”


New Focus FCR 920

This album works so very well on many levels. It is a great example of the state of the art in tuning scholarship, a lovely recording of a fine instrument, and a deeply engaging example of authentic and thoughtful performance practice. From the moment I first heard this CD I was entranced by the very musical experience. There is as much to appreciate in the depth and accuracy of the scholarship involved as there is in the deeply committed and learned performance. This recording is “definitive” in that it represents state of the art tuning theory, instrument making, and baroque performance practice.

Readers of this blog know that I rarely review music written before 1950 but this is a rather special case of contemporary scholarship that, in its way, occupies both the old and the new. It is Bach in the context of the modern scholar providing a unique insight for the modern listener. And, having reviewed much of Mr. Lippel’s work with contemporary music this journey to the past provides a useful perspective on the artist’s range.

This is NOT the complete Bach music for guitar (the modern guitar did not exist in Bach’s time). This is NOT the complete Bach music for lute played on guitar. Rather this is the complete Bach music for “Lautenwerk“, a curious instrument which was a cross between a lute and a harpsichord. While there have been reconstructions of this unusual instrument there are no known extant instruments from Bach’s time. The instrument featured gut strings (rather than metal) which produced a softer sound. The strings were plucked by quills controlled by a keyboard in the manner of a harpsichord and pretty much anyone who played keyboard could play this instrument.

This is a performance on a guitar tuned to the “well tempered” tuning which inspired Bach’s definitive masterpiece, “The Well Tempered Clavier” which demonstrated the utility of the well tempered tuning system (Andreas Werckmeister’s to be specific). This differs considerably from equal temperament tuning which permeates most of the music we commonly hear in western classical traditions. While the technicalities of tuning are well beyond the scope of this review (more information is available at http://www.MicroFestRecords.com and in any number of learned theses on tuning) the critical fact is that this recording provides, as much as possible, the experience of hearing this music on an instrument tuned in the manner which Bach and his contemporaries used. This is about as close as one could come to hearing what Bach’s audiences heard.

All this attention to tuning scholarship, authentic instrument building, and authentic performance practice place this album in the lineage of similarly definitive recordings by the likes of Noah Greenberg and the New York Pro Musica along with artists such as David Munrow, Julian Bream, Alfred Deller, and their successors. The scholarship here draws on the work of scholars whose lineage includes Harry Partch and Ben Johnston. The liner notes are written by one of the living royalty of microtonal scholars, John Schneider (himself a guitarist and composer who is in the process of recording definitive editions of all of Harry Partch’s work). Also mentioned is the assertion by another living royalty of tuning scholarship, the composer/scholar Kyle Gann who suggests that, “hearing performances of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier in modern equal temperament is like viewing Rembrandt’s work through wax paper”. The analogy is apt and the value of this recording is the “removal of the wax paper” (so to say), allowing the listener to hear something much closer to the composer’s original intent.

Of course a standard guitar cannot play these tunings so the artist turned to German luthier (guitar builder) Walter Vogt whose invention, The Fine Tunable Fretboard, graces the beautiful instrument seen on the album cover. This is the instrument we hear in this recording. It is tuned to Johann Kirnberger’s keyboard well tempered tuning system.

And now to the artist. Daniel Lippel is a guitarist, producer, and new music advocate. Though he did release a Bach on guitar recording in 2007 the majority of his work on recordings has been dominated by music composed after 1950 and actually mostly after 2000. Hearing his affinity for baroque performance practice is indeed a revelation by itself. Lippel whose virtuosity and facility with new music is well known demonstrates his facility with baroque performance turning in a ravishingly beautiful recording of this music.

There are three works on this disc, the 6 movement Suite in E minor BWV 996, the four movement Suite in C minor BWV 997, and the Prelude, Fuga, and Allegro BWV 998. The performances are candy for the ears and food for the soul. This is a level of excellence that has this writer hoping for more.

Tantalizing Debut of Margaret Batjer in Four Violin and Orchestra Works


batjer

BIS 2309 SACD

This is a helluva introduction to the wide ranging talents of violinist Margaret Batjer, currently the concert master of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.  OMG, why doesn’t this woman have her own web page?  Well this BIS recording is a sort of, “here’s what I can do across 300+ year of repertoire”.  BIS is a Swedish based record label with a well earned reputation both for quality sound recording as well as intelligent choice of repertoire.  This recording succeeds on both counts.

Batjer opens with a new work by American composer Pierre Jalbert (1967- ) whose star is rising steadily on the reputation of his intense and engaging music.  This is the longest work on the disc and perhaps the most challenging technically.  It is a marvelous violin concerto of a modern but quite accessible composer. Jalbert’s fantastic Piano Quintet was reviewed here.

She follows this with a classic of the western canon, Bach’s A minor concerto, then an arrangement for violin and string orchestra with percussion of Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres” (it exists in an arrangement for nearly any ensemble one could imagine), a classic of so called “holy minimalism”.

And she concludes her program with a longer piece (his second violin concerto) by another holy minimalist, Peteris Vasks (1946- ), a composer who also needs a web page.  His Lonely Angel (2006) was written for Gidon Kremer and follows in the tradition of meditative consonance that characterizes the holy minimalist genre.

She plays with her familiar colleagues in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra under conductor Jeffrey Kahane in an arrestingly beautiful recording of music spanning nearly 300 years.  The combination of technical skills and interpretive skills (by orchestra and soloist) along with a wonderful sound recording make this a welcome debut for this soloist and leaves this writer wanting to hear more from her and this wonderful little orchestra.

Pauline Kim Harris’ Solo Debut: Heroine


heroine

Sono Luminus DSL-92235

Pauline Kim Harris is a marvelously accomplished violinist.  Her resume includes her work as composer as well as performer.  At first glance this disc would seem to be an unusual choice for a solo debut but a quick look at her discography reveals that we have here a musician who has chosen experimental and potentially cutting edge music to define her work.  This album is a collaboration with another musician, Spencer Topel, who has chosen a similarly difficult and complex challenge to define his career.

I have chosen for the scope of this review to forego attempts at analyzing these nascent artists and their uniquely defined personas as musicians and have simply provided links to their respective websites.  What I feel obligated to do however is look at the nature of this genre of this music.  Is it ambient?  Is it drone? Is it transcription?  And who is the intended audience?  Musicians? Listeners sitting in a seat in a concert hall?  Background music a la Eno’s Music for Airports?  How will this disc be used?

One clue as to this music’s intended purpose is the recording label itself.  Sono Luminus, a new music label defined largely by a concern with producing the finest sound via digital signal processing.  This independent classical label has sent me several CDs which are reviewed (most favorably) elsewhere in these pages.  One of the things that is notable about this label is the intelligent choice of programming.  Rather than settle simply for quality sound alone they seem to focus their repertoirial radar on new and/or unusual music which is not being heard on other labels.  Their choices have been intelligent in the past.

OK, now to the disc.  There are but two pieces here.  One is a sort of deconstruction of the Chaconne from Bach’s solo violin partita (BWV 1004).  This much lauded masterpiece has received a great deal of attention and composers such as Feruccio Busoni have done transcriptions of the work.  Another recent recording (reviewed here) features a just intonation version of the work.  I’m not sure what Bach would have thought of either of these but the fact is that this is a work very much representative of western music in the high baroque era and one which endures in performances to this day.

The sound, of course, is wonderful.  The range and the clarity of the recording beg to be heard on the highest quality sound system the listener can commandeer.  It is beautiful. It is in a tonal idiom.  But what volume is needed?  Well that depends on your listening context.  For the purpose of this review I listened on my factory sound system in my 2015 Toyota RAV 4.  Not the highest end of audio reproduction but one which did allow me to perceive the quality of the recording.

So I listened at a volume which allowed the music to be heard above road and traffic noise.  I wondered if I would have appreciated this from an audience seat.  Hmm, not sure.  Then the more ambient notion suggested itself to me.  Maybe this could be music that is played in the foyer of a concert hall before the concert and during intermissions (regardless of the content of the actual concert to be heard).  Intriguing idea but I know of no one willing to consider this notion in any sizable venue.

I listened to the second track, a “reimagining” of Deo Gratias by renaissance composer Johannes Ockeghem.  Same thoughts…dedicated listener in a chair, music to modify a sonic space.  Both tracks are listed as “Composed by Pauline Kim Harris and Spencer Topel.”  So the artists think of these as their compositions.  Fine by me.  The long standing and ongoing tradition of working with older music and recasting it by changing its instrumentation, writing variations, changing its performance context, etc. is well known and has been put to good use in any number of subsequently respected musical compositions.

So in the end I remain undecided as to the intent (other than experimentalism) of these pieces and will leave my readers with the suggestion that they simply listen and utilize the music as it fits your own life.  It is certainly beautiful but it is not dramatic or assertive, rather it almost subsists inviting listeners to contemplate and choose to do more deeply or to simply allow the music to exist as a pleasing sound object (the listener indeed may be the “Heroine” of the title).  Either way this disc provides much more than what initially meets the ear.  And that would seem to be a significant artistic achievement.

Channeling Casals’ Bach: Amit Peled


peled

It was in 1936 that the famed Catalan cellist and composer Pablo Casals performed and recorded the now familiar Bach Cello Suites.  Long thought to be intellectual and technical exercises not intended for public performance these works languished for nearly 200 years on manuscript alone.  Casals pretty much single handedly has made these masterworks a staple of the cellists repertory.  Since Casals there have been numerous readings of these works and no sign of any flagging interest.

It is difficult to imagine any really new perspectives on these works and, aside from Kim Kashkashian’s wonderful transcriptions for viola, one gets basically the musician’s take on the music.  So here comes the Israeli cellist Amit Peled who, since 2004 has had the honor (and attendant responsibilities) of playing Casals’ own cello, a 1730 Gofriller personally loaned to him by Casals’ widow.  So in this first volume (second one not out yet as far as I can tell) is the first time Bach’s masterful Cello Suites have been sung by this instrument since it was in Casals’ hands.

What we have here is a sensitive and committed performance that many will want to hear perhaps as “channeling Casals” but ultimately we have a gorgeous performance by a fine musician channeling his own talents and sensitivities to produce a quite viable performance (are those gut strings I hear?).  Perhaps there are nostalgic aspects here as well but whatever your preference, be it channeling, nostalgia, or simply a great performance of these masterpieces you will find all these here.  Can’t wait for volume II.

Political Classical: Frank Horvat’s “For Those Who Died Trying”


horvatdiedtrying

Atma ACD2 2788

Frank Horvat (1974- )is a Canadian composer and musician with a profound interest in social justice and human rights.  In this 35 movement string quartet he is concerned with memorializing the lives of 35 activists who died while furthering the cause of human rights.  This work is made even more compelling by including photos from a photo essay of the subjects taken by Luke Duggleby, a Thai-based photographer and journalist.

Without a doubt this is a shining example of what I have termed, “Political Classical”, a genre of protest music which seems to have emerged in the twentieth century.  This work takes its place now with Frederic Rzewski’s Pueblo Unido Variations, and works by composers like Luigi Nono, Hans Werner Henze, and countless others who have chosen to use their expertise in the classical genre to write works analogous to the folk protest music which is perhaps better known to the listening public.

With songs one has the words which can directly or indirectly evoke the particular issue being addressed.  But, other than a dedication in the program notes, how does one imbue their music with the intended meaning for a given protest work.  Well, Mr. Horvat has chosen to utilize only the letters from these victims’ names to form the musical material for each portrait.  That is he uses the letters which correspond to musical notes.  Most famously this practice is known through the B, A, C, H (corresponding in German notation as B flat, A, C, B) theme which is the basis for Bach’s Art of Fugue.

By itself this can be a bland and meaningless exercise but Horvat manages to work within this carefully limited framework to create 35 very convincing portraits of these Human Rights Heroes.  The 35 movements are relatively brief and put this listener in the mind of composers who have  succeeded quite well with such a format such as Alan Hovhaness and Lou Harrison.  Both of these composers and the man in discussion here work in a basically tonal framework with a balanced and judicious use of dissonance.  What is curious is how he seems to succeed in evoking these people purely through sound.

In comes the Mivos Quartet whose job it is to make sense of the composer’s intentions and breath life into the notes on the page.  This New York based string quartet consists of Olivia de Prato, violin; Maya Bennardo, violin; Victor Lowrie Tafoya, viola; and Tyler J. Borden, cello.  And let’s just say they are up to the task.  Each movement takes on its individual character but retains a larger connection to the work as a whole.  Perhaps this is also a metaphor for the nature of individuality as part of the larger concept of humanity and why each perspective is vital to our collective survival.

Before I wax too philosophical let me just say that, at least in terms of this recording, this is a document of classical string quartet which also serves as a memorial to the victims it references and, hopefully, as a sort of wake up call to those who, for whatever reason, are unaware of these atrocities.  Ultimately, I suppose, the goal is the amelioration of inhumane practices.  But until then we may find comfort in the beauty which this composer has brought to this work.  This would seem to be a stab at acknowledgement of sacrifice in the name of human rights seeking justice but, for now, we must settle for beauty even if it brings tears which are a mix of both sadness and joy.