Sunday, June 16, 2013

Mark Morris, Lou Harrison, and Henry Cowell

The choreographer Mark Morris above was this year's guest Music Director at the Southern California contemporary music festival in Ojai last week. For three years, the festival has been reprising many of their programs the following week at UC Berkeley through Cal Performances.

Thanks to Patrick Vaz, I attended an outdoor interview of Morris by Wendy Lesser above, and heard the final two concerts at Hertz Hall on Saturday evening of Ojai North!, as it is being branded.

Morris has a mischievous, whip smart intelligence that is very entertaining. Though he looked exhausted after two straight weeks of presiding over dozens of concerts, including a newly choreographed Rite of Spring for the Mark Morris Dance Group, he also looked exuberant about presenting some of his favorite music live.

He described the three years of work that went into curating the festival, and how he started with the music of Lou Harrison, the recently deceased (2003) gay hippie composer who lived in Aptos and whose music is sounding better every year. Harrison is emerging as one of the most important composers in American musical history, and though most of the country doesn't quite yet realize that fact, Morris certainly does.

It was also a wonderful gesture on his part to bring an overwhelmingly West Coast roster of composers to a West Coast music festival, with pieces that most people have never heard before. This included lots of music by Harrison's friend and teacher, Henry Cowell, and his friend and student, John Luther Adams.

The 7PM concert featured the virtuosic keyboard whiz, Colin Fowler, playing organ pieces by Ives, Cowell, Bolcom, and a bizarre, interesting Sonatine for Organ Pedals by Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987). He continued on the instrument with San Diego percussion ensemble red fish blue fish playing Lou Harrison's 1973 Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra, sounding very different but just as remarkable as the San Francisco Symphony performances during last year's American Mavericks Festival.

The final concert featured the MMDG (Mark Morris Dance Group) Music Ensemble playing a 1931 Heroic Dance (for Martha Graham), which Martha never got around to choreographing. This was followed by an excavated "lost" work from the same year called Atlantis, for a proposed drama by the painter Alice Barney and the choreographer Doris Humphrey. The nine-movement work is for orchestra and three vocal soloists. The singers were Yulia Van Doren, Jamie Van Eyck and Douglas Williams, who all did a marvelous job with their non-speech "moans, sighs, grunts, and grumbles." The movements had names like Birth of the Sea Soul, Temptation of the Sea Soul by Monsters, Pleasure Dance of the Sea Soul, and Triumph of the Sea Monster. It was alternately melodic, spooky, delicate and wildly rhythmic music, which probably could have only been written by an inventive California Theosophist.

The final two pieces were a 1942 Fugue for Percussion by Lou Harrison played by red fish blue fish, followed by his 1987 Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan, played by Colin Fowler and the UC Berkeley based Gamelan Sari Raras. The latter piece struck me as the most perfect imaginable fusion of Western classical forms and Javanese classical forms ever composed.

As he stepped over me in the audience at the end of the concert, I thanked Mark Morris for the great music he had just presented. "Suuuure!" he said, grinning, and jumped onstage to join the performers for a bow.

1 comment:

Hattie said...

Wonderful. I wish I could have been there. I have always loved Lou Harrison's work, especially.