Friday, April 13, 2018

The World of Henry Cowell at Bard Music West, Concert 2

Before there was such a thing as "World Music," the California composer Henry Cowell pretty much invented it. The Saturday afternoon concert of the Bard Music West festival last weekend was dedicated to Cowell's international bent, which began with an improvisation by Shahab Paranj on the tombak, an Iranian percussion instrument that was surprisingly multi-faceted in its sounds.

This was followed by Urban Inventory, a 2015 work by Wang Lu, who was raised in Xi'an, China and now teaches at Brown University in Rhode Island. The performers were Third Sound, a recently formed contemporary music ensemble from New York, with Romie de Guise-Langlois on clarinet, Karen Kim on violin, Michael Nicolas on cello, Orion Weiss on piano, and Sooyun Kim on flute who also doubled on a loud, shrieking piccolo in a few movements that made me cover my ears. The six-movement work also included prerecorded urban sounds of voices over speakers, and though the performance was expert, I found the experience unpleasant which may have been intentional.

Sonorous beauty was restored with the 1924 Sonatina by Mexican composer Carlos Chavez who Cowell championed over the decades. The lovely performance was by Luosha Fang on violin and Allegra Chapman on piano.

Tim Padgett then led a percussion quartet in the 1941 Double Music by John Cage and Lou Harrison. Both composers were students of Cowell and he introduced them to each other in the late 1930s, where they essentially invented the percussion ensemble in Western classical music, writing pieces for modern dance troupes in San Francisco and Oakland's Mills College. Double Music is a fascinating chance music experiment, where Harrison and Cage wrote 200 measures for two percussion voices independently and then layered the results together. It worked brilliantly.

The quartet, consisting of Padgett, Ben Paysen, Sam Rich and Mika Nakamura, then played Cowell's 1939 Return which was originally written for dancers to play instruments, which must have been something to see.

Cellist Michael Nicolas from Third Sound was the soulful soloist in Cowell's 1924 Adagio from Ensemble for String Quintet and Thunder Sticks minus the thunder sticks which the composer decided later in life didn't add much to to the composition.

The concert's finale was amazing, a performance of Cowell's 1957 Homage to Iran, with Allegra Chapman on piano, Luosha Fang on violin and Shahab Paranj improvising on the tombak. One of the weirder detours in American history must be Cowell, imprisoned at San Quentin for homosexuality in the 1930s, being selected as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department in the 1950s. During a world tour, he landed in the Middle East during the Suez Canal crisis, and was sent off to program radio shows in Iran where the CIA had recently stage managed the 1953 coup that installed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The rare chance to hear this music live, particularly in such a thrilling performance, was one of the many highlights of Bard Music West festival, which is one of the most exciting new developments on the Bay Area music scene in a long while. I can't wait to see what they do next.