Music review: Post-Classical Ensemble recognizes the work of Lou Harrison

Lisa Moore plays the piano in Harrison's concerto for piano and gamelan, performed at Lisner Auditorium on Saturday.
Lisa Moore plays the piano in Harrison's concerto for piano and gamelan, performed at Lisner Auditorium on Saturday. (The Washington Post)

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2011; 8:14 PM

Originality is supposed to be the value we prize most in our artists. In fact, though, it can make it awfully hard to have a career. If originality truly were the be-all and end-all, then Lou Harrison, who died in 2003, would be feted as one of our greats. Instead, Harrison is held in esteem by insiders but awaits the full appreciation of posterity, although conductor Michael Tilson Thomas has done his bit to gain recognition for him as an "American maverick."

One hindrance to wider dissemination of Harrison's work is logistical: Part of his originality involved changing the tuning system that is a codified part of the Western classical tradition, and not all presenters are willing to retune their Steinways to Harrison's specifications.

The Post-Classical Ensemble was, however, and did, for the miniature Harrison festival it held on Friday and Saturday. "Festival" is actually too grand a term for three events (a documentary film at the National Gallery on Feb. 26; a free concert-symposium at the Indonesian Embassy on Friday night; and a concert at Lisner Auditorium on Saturday). The whole thing smacked of the same homemade goodwill that Harrison and his life partner, Bill Colvig, put into constructing their own distinctive instruments for an American version of the gamelan, the Indonesian percussion ensemble. In the case of the Post-Classical Ensemble's events, "homemade" meant a lot of talking about Harrison's music and a regrettably low proportion of playing it.

This didactic approach was all the more unfortunate since Harrison's music is so eminently able to speak for itself. Don't be put off by the idea of alternate tunings: This music is anything but academic or theoretical. It's centered on melody; it's direct and transparent, and those tunings - in, for instance, the radiant third movement of the monumental piano concerto, Saturday's main event - have the effect of lifting a veil on hearing, presenting simple sounds that seem not quite like anything you've heard before. The result is music that's unexpected and fresh, like a child offering up a profound philosophical tenet with the same sunny smile as the music's white-bearded creator.

There was indeed a childlike quality to Harrison, a simplicity that was hard-won (after a prolonged hospitalization following a midlife nervous breakdown), that he cultivated and that Eva Soltes's documentary film helped elucidate. And learning more about the gamelan on Friday night from Sumarsam, an adjunct professor at Wesleyan University, who brought Wesleyan's gamelan ensemble down for the event, may have been helpful for some in understanding Harrison's fascination with these instruments. Two pieces for gamelan and Western instruments, including the slender "Bubaran Robert" for trumpet and gamelan, formed the first half of Saturday's program; and there was a marked gamelan influence in the piano concerto. But taken together, the events, rather than complementing one another, repeated themselves.

In lieu of seeing clips of Soltes's film for a second time on Saturday night, I would have preferred to hear the entire concerto for piano and gamelan; as it was, only one movement was offered. The work artfully juxtaposes two complex, quasi-symphonic percussion instruments (piano and gamelan ensemble), East and West each making fluent-sounding attempts at adopting the accent of the other, with the piano's unusual tuning giving a quirky tinge to its tones, a slight acridity to would-be octaves. It was adroitly played by new-music specialist Lisa Moore, who adapted herself without a conductor to the Wesleyan gamelan ensemble.

And I might have preferred to hear the piano concerto without quite so much buildup; Joseph Horowitz, a co-founder and co-director of the Post-Classical Ensemble, went so far as to call it "the most formidable piano concerto written by any American composer." Not that the piano concerto isn't great - it got a fine reading here from Benjamin Pasternack, conducted by Angel Gil-Ordonez, the ensemble's other co-director. But it is not a work about great claims. To be sure, it is built on a grand scale - it lasts a half-hour - and has plenty of complexities, such as the layers of piano and percussion intricately overlapping in the second movement. But it doesn't deal with counterpoint or harmony in ways that Western concertos are expected to do, nor does it have the emotional rhetoric of a romantic concerto (though it does have some romantic gestures). Its climax is not an emotional catharsis but rather the radiance of that third movement: music as shining and direct as rainwater in a sunbeam.

The concert ended with "Four Strict Songs," a kind of non-mass of devotional-sounding sentences sung by a chorus with the directness of plain chant and the eloquence of a poet. It was the best key of all to the substance of Harrison's work: examining small worthwhile things with great care and attention, without any agenda beyond pure curiosity. This Zenlike aspect is another Eastern coloring to Harrison's Western music. It would have been nice to be able to contemplate this music in slightly more peace and quiet, but the Post-Classical Ensemble still deserves a lot of credit for giving audiences here a chance to hear it.


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