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.

Blue Violet Duo: American Souvenirs


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Blue Violet Records



This release actually makes a nice companion to the just recently reviewed Rachel Barton-Pine album. Both feature the classic chamber music combo of violin and piano and both bring life to American music that has languished for want of skilled and interested performers.  Let’s consider this release to be another selection in celebration of Women’s History Month.  Of course the only women here are the performers.  Alas no women made it into the mix this time.  But this is, after all, only their first release.
The Blue Violet Duo is just what is needed here.  These young artists make their recording debut with this fine selection of mid-twentieth to early twenty first century American music for violin and piano.  Included here are less familiar names such as Norman Dello Joio, Paul Schoenfeld, William Bolcom, and John Adams (if you know any names here you know this last one).  All are highly accomplished composers who work in basically a tonal language incorporating elements of blues and jazz.  Kate Carter plays violin and Louise Chan handles the keyboard in this interesting selection of lesser known but really entertaining and substantive music.  
The earliest work is the Variations and Capriccio (1948) by Norman Dello Joio (1913-2008). It sets the tone for this album of jazz influenced violin and piano music.  The two movements go through a variety of moods and demand a high level of virtuosity.
Next up is the wonderful Second Violin Sonata (1978) by William Bolcom (1938- ) who is known as much as a ragtime composer as well as classical.  His embrace of so called vernacular music is characteristic of much of his work. Carter and Chan appear to have a solid grasp of vernacular styles which they incorporate seamlessly as though they belonged (which, of course they do).John Adams (1947- ) is represented by his playful, Road Movies (1995). Adams’ take on pop and vernacular musical is somehow different and the listener will realize that one of the joys here is hearing the way in which these composers respond to their encounters with popular musics.  Adams also demands much of his musicians in terms of technical expertise but his music here always remains playful.
For the last selection Paul Schoenfeld (1947- ) was chosen and he is one that deserves more attention.  Like Adams he works as a classical composer who incorporates other styles into his work. Four Souvenirs (1990) makes a fitting finale to this collection.The real joy here is having such fine renditions of lesser known repertoire.  On hearing these pieces listeners will likely want to hear them again.  The hope is that these pieces will become more regularly performed.  The Blue Violet Duo has given this repertoire a boost in that direction.  Brava!

 

Sarah Cahill et al: By and for Terry Riley


Sarah Cahill - Eighty Trips Around the Sun- Music by and for Terry Riley - cover.png

Had to save this one for Christmas.  If ever there was an album that conjures more of the positive intents of the Christmas season this one gets my vote.  Imagine celebrating a living acknowledged master artist in a milieu of his actual and artistically extended family.  That may seem an extreme notion to some but this writer is utterly charmed and thrilled to hear this “one of a kind” collection.  Other interpretations will, of course, be valid but none will ever match this one.  It’s like the Carter family of the avant-garde (and I mean that unambiguously with great respect).

Any release by Bay Area pianist Sarah Cahill is reason enough alone to perk up one’s ears but this massive four disc collection of all new recordings in honor of Terry Riley’s 80th birthday (Terry was born in 1935) is a major release of (almost) all of Riley’s music for piano, piano four hands and two pianos.  In addition two of the discs are dedicated to pieces commissioned in honor of Riley.  This set belongs in the collection of anyone interested in mid to late twentieth century music and especially fans of minimalism and the curiously west coast iterations of modernism.

As a listener I have always treated every Terry Riley release as a major event as well and this collection does about as fine a job as one can imagine in paying homage to one of the brightest artistic lights of the Bay Area.  Riley came to prominence (at least historically speaking) with his open score piece, In C (1964).  It is among the earliest examples of the style which, for better or worse, became known as “minimalism”.  Since then he has continued to produce music in pretty much all genres, chamber music, orchestral music, solo music, concerti, etc.

Riley’s style, however, continued to evolve and his later works show diverse influences from his days playing barrel house piano, his interest in progressive jazz, and his studies of Hindustani and Carnatic musics (under the tutelage of Pandit Pran Nath).  Like pretty much every composer of that first wave of “minimalists” Riley has evolved a much deeper and individualized style but, even with the diversity of influences as mentioned, he remains uniquely Terry Riley.

Throughout his career as composer and performer Terry has been a teacher and an advocate of new music.  His enthusiasm and talent has affected all who know him and, I dare say, all who have experienced his work.

This collection ranges over his entire career from the early “Two Pieces” (1958/9) to later solo and four hand compositions on the first two discs.  It is worth noting that Be Kind to One Another (2008/14) was one of the commissions in Sarah Cahill’s wonderful series of anti-war pieces, “A Sweeter Music”.  It then goes on to the homages which, of course, can also be said to be influenced by Riley’s work.

This is not simply a collection of Riley’s piano music.  What we have here is a lively celebration of most of Riley’s music for piano, two pianos and piano four hands from the full spectrum of his career (as the liner notes say a couple of large compositions were not included, most likely a matter of space) along with a touching set of homages by composers related musically and aesthetically to Mr. Riley.  They range from contemporaries to students, artistic descendants to actual family.  It is a multi-generational tribute and a loving artifact that celebrates this artist on a very personal level.

Regina Myers supplies the other two hands in the disc of four hand piano pieces by Riley.  She credits another Bay Area composer/teacher/conductor, the Mills College based Steed Cowart for recommending her for this crucial role.  Such touches add to the sense of this being a Bay Area family project on so many levels.

The interrelationships that comprise this lovely production make it stand distinctly apart from the (no less significant or lovely) homages to fellow minimalists Philip Glass and Steve Reich.  This is a much more personal album which reflects Riley as composer, teacher, inspiration, father, icon and friend.  Anyone who has met Terry or experienced him in performance has experienced a certain warmth like that of a wise and gentle guru.

After the two discs of Riley’s music we are treated to music inspired by another generation of artists and, last, by long time colleague, the late great Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016), another wise and gentle guru who died just about a year before the release of this album.  She and Terry worked together (along with Morton Subotnick, Ramon Sender, Steve Reich, William Maginnis, and Tony Martin) as founders of the San Francisco Tape Music Center which would become the Mills College Center for Contemporary Music (still operating today).  The producers wisely dedicated an entire disc to one of Oliveros’ last compositions, this loving tribute to her friend and colleague. It is now, sadly, a tribute to her memory as well.   Samuel Adams shares the performing duties along with Ms. Cahill on this extended homage.

There is little doubt that the other composers whose music graces this tribute will continue on their unique paths to continued success always acknowledging their connections to Mr. Riley.  Danny Clay is among the less familiar (to this reviewer) names here but his Circle Songs seem to fit quite well to open the first tribute disc.  Gyan Riley is, of course, one of Terry’s children and a fine guitarist and composer  in his own right.  Anyone who has had the pleasure of seeing Gyan and Terry play together cannot miss the close bond personally and musically of these two.  They are a joy to behold.  The affectionate Poppy Infinite is a reference to the elder Riley’s Poppy Nogood’s Phantom Band which was the “B side” of his classic Rainbow in Curved Air.  Samuel Adams is the son of Pulitzer Prize winner John Adams whose early work China Gates was written for and championed by his fellow classmate at the San Francisco Conservatory, Sarah Cahill.  The younger Adams’ contribution here is called Shade Studies.

The eclectic Christine Southworth also seems to embody the (perhaps loosely defined) West Coast style.  Her interests in electronics and world music describe this superficially but her sound is a welcome one here as well.  Keeril Makan earned his PhD. in music at Berkeley which doubtless has left a stamp on his style.  His composition “Before C” makes reference to what is doubtless Terry Riley’s best known work, the oft performed, “In C”.  Elena Ruehr is a composer whose connection is not as clear as some of the others here but her work, “In C too” demonstrates her understanding of and her respect for Riley’s work.  Last on this disc of tributes is Dylan Mattingly.  He is a Berkeley native and can frequently be seen/heard performing in various venues in the Bay Area.  His contribution YEAR demonstrates both his individual style and his connection to the West Coast Style mentioned earlier.

The liner notes by Sarah Cahill are part of the tribute and a good description of the various influences behind the man of the hour, Terry Riley.  Credit is properly given to the artistic influences that inspired Mr. Riley and a brief description of what must have been an intimidating but loving project.  It is likely that there are even more connections involved in this undertaking but that must be left to future musicological and historical research.

The Kronos Quartet has long ago championed Riley’s work for that medium and new versions of his classic, “In C” continue to come on the scene.  One can only hope that the energy embodied here will inspire recordings of some of Riley’s lesser known work with orchestra which richly deserves hearings.  But regardless there is much to celebrate here and best holiday wishes go out to Mr. Riley and his talented progeny.  Happy listening, all.

 

 

 

American Muse, American Master: Steven Stucky on BMOP


BMOP 1050

Steven Stucky (1949-2016) was sadly taken from the world too soon.  But we can rejoice in this wonderful new disc of (mostly) first recordings of some of his wonderful orchestral music and songs.  Boston Modern Orchestra Project adds another entry to their growing discography of must hear American music with this beautiful recording.

Three works are featured, Rhapsodies (2008), American Muse (1999), and Concerto for Orchestra (No. 1, 1987).  Only one, American Muse has been recorded (on Albany Records) before and all are worthy selections from the composer’s ample catalog.

Rhapsodies, the most recent work, is also the shortest at just over 8 minutes.  It was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony and is for large orchestra and sounds as though it could serve as a movement in another Concerto for Orchestra.  Stucky, who was an expert on the music of Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994), was a master orchestrator as was Lutosławski though Stucky’s style is distinctly different reflecting a sort of friendly romantic modernism with serious virtuosity.  This little gem gives the orchestra and, no doubt, the conductor, a run for their money in this virtuosic and highly entertaining little sonic gem.  It was premiered in 2008 under Lorin Maazel.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic commission, American Muse was written with the fine baritone Sanford Sylvan in mind.  It is a four song cycle setting poems by John Berryman, e.e. cummings, A.R. Ammons, and Walt Whitman and was premiered in 1999 under Esa-Pekka Salonen.  Sylvan is a very fine interpreter of American music and first won this reviewer’s heart with his rendition of John Adams’ The Wound Dresser (also a Whitman setting).  One should never miss an opportunity to hear Sylvan’s work.

Again we are treated to Stucky’s acute and subtle sense of orchestration which works with the poetry unobtrusively paralleling the words with the musical accompaniment and seemingly creating its own poetry in sound. Sylvan is in fine voice and seems to be enjoying his performance, a very satisfying experience.

The inclusion of Stucky’s first Concerto for Orchestra which was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and premiered in 1988 (under Ricardo Muti) will satisfy fans of this composer’s work as it provides an opportunity to hear “the one that got away” so to speak.  It was the runner up for the Pulitzer Prize which he would later win for his Second Concerto for Orchestra (2003) in 2005.

In it’s three movements Stucky is clearly the master of his realm and creates a wonderful listening experience.  His sense of drama and emotion are stunning and serve to underscore the dimension of what the world has lost in his passing.  But it is time to leave sorrow aside and let the music speak and thus provide the composer with a dimension of immortality.

As usual the performance and recording are impeccable and Gil Rose continues to record wonderful music that deserves more frequent hearings and does honor to the memory of a cherished artist.  Now can a recording of Stucky’s 2012 Symphony be far behind?  Let’s hope so.

Pictures at a Post-Minimalist Exhibition: Eighth Blackbird’s Hand Eye


handeye

Eighth Blackbird is Chicago’s more than adequate answer to New York’s Bang on a Can and this album is solid proof of that.  The liner notes tell us that this is “a collection inspired by a collection” and these 9 tracks are sonic impressions by the individual composers of an art exhibit.  The end result is very much like the romantic/impressionistic Mussourgsky gem updated to the post-minimalist era.

It is well worth your time to check out the artwork which inspired this music (here) and this writer imagines that this piece could really work well as a film score, a DVD perhaps of these images.  The music invokes various minimalist and post-minimalist composers and styles.  It is almost a sonic tour of post-minimalism.  And apparently there are plans for a multimedia tour of this piece as well.  Sounds like a wonderful idea.

This album is the work of a composer’s collective called Sleeping Giant and consists of Timo Andres, Andrew Norman, Robert Honstein, Christopher Cerrone, Ted Hearne and Jacob Cooper.  Each has chosen a selection of art to which they wrote a piece of music providing their musical impressions.  The result is a remarkably coherent set of pieces which, while each different, seem to flow into a unity.

Casual listeners may be familiar with the names of Timo Andres or Andrew Norman but all these composers are basically new to these ears and it appears to be a talented lot that deserves some serious attention as they may very well be THE ones to watch/listen to in the coming years. They utilize a variety of techniques in their compositions but there is never a feeling of this being experimental or tentative.  These are fully fleshed out works by master composers.

The music is appealing immediately upon first listen.  One hears the influences of Terry Riley here, John Adams there, David Lang, etc.  In short these pieces are informed by the preceding generations of minimalists much as they also address their debt and do honor to their mentors.  It has some of the character of Lang’s “Child” in that this is essentially a suite of pieces of post-minimalist chamber music (though this music has an almost symphonic quality at times).

The recording is superb and up to the high standards of Cedille releases and the musicianship, as always, is superb.  The liner notes by Sleeping Giant along with Tim Munro are lucid and the album design by Karl Jensen is eye-poppingly psychedelic.  This project was funded by the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation for the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival, Carnegie Hall, the Andrew W. Mellon and the Texas Performing Arts at the University of Texas at Austin.