Lou Harrison was a wonderful 20th-century composer who has not gotten the same attention as an innovator as his friends John Cage and Henry Cowell. The PostClassical Ensemble has been trying to rectify that. In 2011, it gave a Harrison festival, and on Saturday night the ensemble returned with a one-night tribute that included a major work, the “Grand Duo for Violin and Piano”; several other worthwhile pieces; and a gamelan ensemble for good measure.
Like one of the events in 2011, the evening was held at the Embassy of Indonesia, a fitting setting that combines ornate old-world architecture with Indonesian decorative touches. The embassy brought out its own gamelan ensemble for the event, starting off the evening, as the crowd came in, with some background playing and singing that was in a way as bright and decorative as the brass instruments — various forms of gong and metallophone and drum — themselves. Harrison was a devotee of the gamelan, and wrote one piece for it, “Ladrang Epikuros,” which the ensemble played after intermission.
Tim Fain was the featured violinist, both in the “Grand Duo” and in the “Concerto for Violin and Percussion” from 1940 (revised in 1959). Joseph Horowitz, one of the PostClassical Ensemble’s two founders and instigators, pointed out in an introduction from the stage that Harrison, Cage and Cowell essentially invented the percussion ensemble, and he had the featured percussionist, William Richards, demonstrate the brake drums and tin cans that formed part of this particular piece. The evening also included Cowell’s “Pulse” for percussion, and an antic, chattering “Double Music for Percussion” by Cage and Harrison, all dating from about 1940; Angel Gil-Ordóñez, the PostClassical’s other founder and leader, conducted adroitly.
But the real spotlight was on Fain, a sunny and affable player who poured himself into the “Grand Duo,” in particular, along with the accomplished pianist Michael Boriskin. In some generally edifying remarks about Harrison’s music during the somewhat talk-heavy program, Bill Alves, a Harrison expert, pointed out features of gamelan music that appear in the “Grand Duo,” but frankly, these sounded in practice a lot like a violin singing against a roiling, dark piano background, not an unusual feature of piano-violin duets.
The distinction lies in the emotional temperature of a work that varies, like much Western music, between stormier rapid episodes and more long-winded meditative ones through its five movements, but expresses itself in longer, steadier emotional blocs, evocative of gamelan music’s longer cycles, rather than romantic-style outpourings. Nonetheless, the piece is unusually intense and stormy for a composer whose work I’ve tended to think of as straightforward and radiant — although it showed all of these qualities, particularly in the little “Round” that provided a brief palate-cleanser midway through, after an involved “Stampede” and before the long, thoughtful “Air.” Fain and Boriskin made a strong case for an important piece. Happily, it will be recorded to join the PostClassical Ensemble’s growing catalogue of significant but neglected music.
The PostClassical Ensemble’s next event, in April, celebrates the music of Bernard Herrmann. Visit postclassical.com for information