Lou Harrison Centennial Concert at the Mission Dolores Basilica
The Other Minds Festival's 22nd annual edition offered a pair of concerts devoted to the music of Lou Harrison (1917-2003) on what would have been his centenary year. Executive Director Charles Amirkhanian wrote in the program notes that Lou was not only a composer, but a "poet, dancer, dance and music critic, playwright, Esperantist, builder of instruments, painter, calligrapher, essayist and teacher." He was also a shining prototype of a West Coast, gay, leftist, pacifist, multicultural hippie artist, and his music is aging well. (Pictured above is Amirkhanian in front of portraits of Harrison and his lover/partner Bill Colvig which were part of a silent auction benefiting the festival.)
The concerts were given at the Mission Dolores Basilica, a perfect location as it allowed for a large audience at a venue with surprisingly good acoustics, and it turns out that Harrison studied Gregorian Chant at the Basilica when he was a San Francisco teenager. Amirkhanian asked the audience to raise their hands if they had ever met Lou Harrison and half the crowd did so. This was probably the hippest crowd of old artists and their supporters I have encountered in one place.
Amirkhanian collaborated with Harrison on multiple projects, beginning in the late 1960s when Amirkhanian became musical programming director of Berkeley's KPFA radio during its glory decades. They continued as friends and admirers over the years at Harrison's Cabrillo Music Festival in Santa Cruz and Amirkhanian's Other Minds Festival in San Francisco.
I missed the first concert this winter but managed to catch the second on Saturday, May 20th. The program ranged from a pair of wild organ pieces, continued with delicate chamber music, and culminated in a huge mixed chorus singing in Esperanto over a gamelan percussion orchestra. Jerome Lenk, the Music Director and principal organist of the Basilica, started the concert with the 1946-47 Praises for Michael the Archangel for organ with a style derived from Schoenberg who was Harrison's teacher for a couple of years, and finished with the 1987-89 Pedal Sonata for Organ where no keyboards are harmed and all the sound is created with footwork on the pedals. Having a personal aversion to solo organ music, this wasn't my favorite part of the concert, but Lenk gave a virtuosic performance on a splendid sounding instrument. In between, Meredith Clark above played the 1990 Threnody for Oliver Daniel for Harp.
Clark was joined by cellist Emil Miland for the five movement, 1948 Suite for Harp and Cello in a lovely performance that underlined what is so special about Harrison's music: its distinct mixture of complexity and simplicity with a sheen of rigorous beauty.
The second half offered a performance of the 1974 Suite for Violin and American Gamelan, co-composed with Richard Dee who was in the audience. With his lover William Colvig, Harrison assembled an American Gamelan nicknamed "Old Granddad" in the late 1960s. According to the program, it was "based partly on traditional Indonesian designs and partly using found objects. Aluminum slabs, tin cans, electrical conduit and empty oxygen tanks, cut to various sizes and struck with sawed-off baseball bats, replacing the gongs of the Asian gamelan." The Original Granddad is still housed at UC Santa Cruz, and was reassembled on the Basilica pulpit where it looked right at home. Violinist Shalini Vijayan above was the soloist and the William Winant Percussion Group (with Winant pictured above) played the amazing instrument. Just when you think the five-movement suite can't get any more lyrically gorgeous, the final Chaconne takes you to another realm. It was a wonderful performance by percussionists and soloist alike, and when Michael Tilson Thomas reprises it later this month at one of his American Maverick concerts, I hope they play the whole thing instead of excerpts as was done at a SoundBox concert earlier this year. The piece deserves it.
The finale was the 1972 La Koro Sutro (The Heart Sutra), written for the Old Granddad gamelan, harp, organ, and a huge mixed chorus. From a prayer in the Bhagavad Gita, the text has been translated into Esperanto, the "constructed" language from the late 19th century which was meant to usher in world peace once everyone could speak to each other. At least half the words in the language end in an "o" or "a" which makes it perfect for vocal settings, and the live performance by the combined forces of the Mission Dolores Choir, the Resound Choir, and a few assorted guests exceeded all expectations.
William Winant recorded the 30-minute work in 1988 and I have been listening to that CD as meditative morning music for decades. It was a rare treat to have him leading his percussion ensemble on the original instruments.
The wonderful young percussionists playing with Winant all deserve recognition: Sarong Kim, Ed Garcia, Jon Meyers, Sean Josey, and Henry Wilson.
Imagine the combination of a Balinese gamelan orchestra mixed with a 100-person Gregorian Chant chorus and you will have some idea of what this magical piece sounds like. There have been a number of attempts at synthesizing Western classical music traditions and Eastern classical music traditions, but none quite as perfectly integrated as this strange masterpiece. The pop-up chorus was also unexpectedly great in very exposed music.
Credit for that should probably go to conductor Nicole Paiement, who I had seen earlier in the day rehearsing her Opera Parallele company in the Philip Glass opera Les Enfants Terrible. Where she gets her energy is anybody's guess, but there could not have been a better leader for these two gamelan pieces. She was a friend and mutual admirer of Harrison in Santa Cruz, and though she is always a great conductor, I think even she was surprised at how well this performance of La Koro Sutro turned out. Everybody on the pulpit looked rather dazed at the end, where the extremely delicate, trancelike music finished with an uproarious blast of cacophonous energy from everyone. There was an air of, "What did we just do? That was amazing." And it was.