Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Music of Lou Harrison at SoundBox

The San Francisco Symphony’s SoundBox nightclub series started its third year with a survey of gay, hippie, pacifist composer Lou Harrison’s music, and it was a remarkable, surprising, insightful concert that left the audience wanting more.

Harrison died in 2003 and next year will mark the centennial of his birth in 1917. Last weekend’s SF Symphony tribute was the first of many scheduled to feature the Bay Area composer’s work, and you can find a listing for most of them at the Other Minds website (click here). As much as I love the recordings I have of Harrison’s music, what the SoundBox sampler concert made clear is that it sounds even better live – delicate, intricately rhythmic, a rigorous mixture of the simple and complex that allows performers to shine. (Harrison is pictured above with Bill Colvig, his longtime lover and collaborator in instrument building in Aptos.)

There was some trepidation going in, because the program was divided between excerpts of chamber works and spoken anecdotes from conductor Michael Tilson Thomas that also included film clips from Eva Soltes’ documentary, Lou Harrison: A World of Music. I was afraid MTT would yammer on, but his introductions were smart, concise, and illuminating, and the film clips were short and fun.

The concert started with the 1939 Kyrie from Mass to St. Anthony for piccolo, percussion, and chorus, part of “an earnest protest to Hitler invading Poland,” according to Jeanette Yu’s program notes. It was short, martial, bracing and beautiful, sounding as if it could have been written yesterday.

This was followed by flautist Tim Day joining percussionists Tom Hemphill and Jacob Nissly for the 1939 Concerto #1 for Flute and Percussion, whose first movement is marked “Earnest, fresh and fastish” and the third movement “Strong, swinging, and fastish” with “Slow and poignant” in between. The percussion and flute sounded as if they were operating in two different universes, which was fascinating.

The 1941 Canticle No. 3 was part of what Harrison called his “Mexican period,” and it was soft, sweet and enchanting, with oboist Steven Dibner (above right) playing an ocarina and percussionist Stan Muncy strumming an acoustic guitar while Jacob Nissly, Raymond Froehlich, Tom Hemphill, Loren Mach, and Artie Storch gently laid down a groundwork with percussion instruments.

After an intermission, Tilson Thomas talked about Harrison’s 1940s sojourn in New York where he worked as a music critic with Virgil Thomson at the Herald Tribune for a while before he suffered a nervous breakdown that led to a nine-month stay in a sanitarium. His return to coastal California initiated a new musical style that looked away from Europe and incorporated elements of Asian music. Cellist Sebastien Gingras and harpist Jieyin Wu performed the gorgeous Suite for Cello and Harp from 1949 that initiated this new period.

This was followed by two movements from the 1963 Pacifika Rondo for chamber orchestra, including the fourth movement entitled A Hatred of the Filthy Bomb. The performance was so stirring that we wished they had played the entire piece.

After another intermission, violinist Nadya Tichman performed three movements from the 1973 Suite for Violin and American Gamelan.

The percussion instruments in the “American Gamelan” were the originals built by Harrison and his partner Colvig in Aptos out of “found materials (like steel conduit tubing, aluminum slabs, stacked tin cans as resonators).”

MTT mentioned that the final Chaconne was the piece he liked to have on his headphones when he was hiking on Mt. Tam and having a hard time making it over that last ridge. The performance by the percussionists and particularly Nadya was extraordinary, and in that final movement the musicians basically vanished into the transcendant music.

The concert ended with a couple of movements from the wild 1973 Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra with Michael Hey as soloist. The whole evening made me proud to be a Californian, or a native of “Pacifika” as Harrison called the West Coast, especially after the horrors of the recent election and the ascension of the worst of “Atlantica” values in this country. For more in musical healing, you might want to check out a free gathering of musicians and performers this coming Sunday from 11AM to 3PM at the Chapel of the Chimes mausoleum in Oakland (click here for details).


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