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.