A ferocious dragon spirit stood near the entrance to Washington National Cathedral, near where a Balinese gamelan, a traditional percussion ensemble from Indonesia, was assembling. At the other end of the nave, another gamelan, this one Javanese, was playing, sending the rhythmic plinkings and plops of sound up into what became, with distance and the echoes of the stone, a golden fog.
Adventurous programming is a hallmark of the Post-Classical Ensemble. This “experimental music laboratory,” now in its 15th year, explored the profound influence that gamelan has had on Western classical composers in a three-hour concert at the cathedral, its new home, on Wednesday night.
“Adventure” is relative. The ensemble is the brainchild of Joseph Horowitz, who has made a name for himself in the classical world for just this kind of programming and who tends to revisit his own passions. Wednesday’s concert, for which he served as emcee, was, he told the audience, the culmination of 10 years of work. It also rehashed at least two earlier Post-Classical Ensemble concerts focused on the gamelan and on Lou Harrison, the eclectic 20th-century American composer.
The program, though, aimed higher than these earlier efforts, placing them in the context of the gamelan’s larger influence on French composers, in particular. The Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris gave that city not only the Eiffel Tower but also a resident “Javanese village” that allowed visitors an unprecedented chance to hear this percussive, many-layered music with its distinctive ringing timbres. The so-called Chinoiserie of Debussy and Ravel can be directly traced to this influence; after an introductory Peacock Dance by the Javanese gamelan, the Taiwanese pianist Wan-Chi Su played Debussy’s “Pagodes” and Ravel’s “La vallee des cloches” with a light, crisp grace that gave a bell-like quality to each note.
Teaching is part of the Post-Classical Ensemble’s mandate, and one of this evening’s lessons was that there are two types of gamelan: the Javanese gentler and mellower; the Balinese offering great contrasts and more drama. (Both of Wednesday’s gamelans came from the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia, which also catered a reception at the evening’s end.) The Balinese gamelan played a piece that was then offered in a two-piano transcription by the Canadian composer Colin McPhee, who lived on Bali and was pioneering in his study of this ensemble. His piece ushered in a powerful group of two-piano works, including a movement of Olivier Messiaen’s “Visions de l’Amen,” the first movement of Francis Poulenc’s Sonata for two pianos, and a more recent, dynamic “Black Toccata” by Bill Alves, a Lou Harrison expert. The context was particularly edifying for the light it shed on Messiaen, who is known as a deeply spiritual composer who worked his Catholicism into his pieces; underlining the echoes of the gamelan in his work suggested a kind of idealization of the purity of this folk instrument as an embodiment of spirituality, an uncomfortable sort of colonialization, were it not so clearly also an act of homage.
The second half of the program would have been an evening-length offering for many groups: Harrison’s 1951 Suite for violin, piano and small orchestra (a 10-piece ensemble including a piano with tacks embedded in the felt of its hammers, creating a tinny, buzzing sound), followed by his generously sized piano concerto, played by Benjamin Pasternak, who last performed it with this group in 2011.
There’s something to be said for repeating concerts, particularly of unfamiliar music. An orchestra subscriber, after all, hears Beethoven and Tchaikovsky over and over. Horowitz and Angel Gil-Ordoñez, his co-instigator and the evening’s energetic and generous conductor, are working to create the same kind of familiarity about music that is less widely known. The concerto is not something that orchestras are likely to take up because it requires a piano tuned in well-temperament rather than the more common equal temperament, with the other instruments also retuned accordingly — a process that has to begin a couple of weeks before the concert. But the freshness of the resulting timbres in big sounds that sound now all-American (like the ferocious second movement, called Stampede, full of galloping percussion, and yet reminiscent of Copland) and now like some new language of its own, is worth the investment, and getting to hear it live again was a treat.
“Hear” is a relative term as well. The echoing spaces of the cathedral are an acoustical challenge to many forms of musical performance, making it hard for ensembles to play together and wrapping clean lines in encroaching tendrils of echoes. But the ensemble utilized the space well, with the different performance areas — the piano stationed midway down the nave, with one gamelan at each end — helping to create a more communal and less hidebound sense to a performance that included speech, dance and even a short film about the gamelan. Three hours is a lot of concert, but the epic length, for once, actually felt worth it.