March 3, 1998
Lou Harrison: A Portrait. Symphony No. 4 ("Last Symphony"); Solstice--excerpts; Concerto in slendro; Elegy, to the Memory of Calvin Simmons; Double Music. California Symphony, Barry Jekowsky, conductor. (Argo, CD # 455 590-2) 1997.
Mobile concert-goers will remember Barry Jekowsky as conductor of the National Symphony in their concert here a few weeks ago. On this new album from Argo, Mr. Jekowsky conducts the California Symphony is a musical portrait of American composer Lou Harrison, one of many tributes to Harrison in his eightieth birthday year. This collection ranges from early works such as the percussion quartet "Double Music," written in collaboration with John Cage in 1941, to the Symphony No. 4 from 1990. (Harrison himself gave this symphony the title "The Last Symphony"; when asked about the possibility of writing another work in that genre, he simply said that if that happened he would call it "The Very Last Symphony.")
Lou Harrison was born in 1917 in Oregon, but moved as a child to California, where he has lived all his life except for eight years in New York (1943 - 1951) and two years (1951 - 1951) at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Those years were very important in Harrison's personal and professional life. In New York he met and worked with a diverse group of musicians and dancers, including Virgil Thompson and the dancer/choreographer Jean Erdman. It was Harrison's collaborations with Erdman that produced Solstice, completed in 1951.
Conceived as a stage work, Solstice "deals with the struggle between the old year and the new year." The instrumentation of Solstice -- three treble instruments, three bass instruments, and two keyboards -- reflects this struggle. Harrison saw the piece as a reflection of "the primeval fear of both solstices: the terrifying one -- is everything going to get hotter and we will all burn up? And the frightening one -- is everything going to get darker and we will head into oblivion?" One can hear this struggle in "Solstice," but it is not played out in a Sturm-und-Drang fashion, but with a gentle touch that reflects the California-based, Asian-influenced outlook that informs all of Harrison's music.
Early in his career, Harrison became fascinated with Asian music, especially the Indonesian gamelan, and with the limitless possibilities of percussion. During the 1940s, Harrison and John Cage made dozens of percussion instruments from items scavenged from San Francisco junkyards and then wrote works incorporating those found instruments and a broad range of Asian, African, and Latin American rhythms. Eclectic rhythms, exotic instruments, and a love of gamelan music have been hallmarks of all of Harrison's vast and diverse output of music. Considered well out of the American mainstream for most of his career, Harrison has gained a wide audience in the past ten years, not because he has changed, but because the rest of the world has caught up with a composer who was exploring and using "world" music long before it became popular or even understood. This collection in honor of the eightieth birthday year of Lou Harrison is a good opportunity to sample the work of one of the most individualistic American composers.
You can hear "Solstice--excerpts" by Lou Harrison on WHIL-FM (91.3) Thursday, March 12 at 7:30 pm as part of their weekly series of music from after 1950.
-- J. Green
PARAMOUNT BRASS, featuring Jon P. Dante and Anthony Gimenez, trumpets, Tritz Foss, french horn, Daniel Harrison, trombone, and Andrew Miller, tuba, will perform a concert on March 22 at 3 p.m. in Bernheim Hall of the Downtown Branch of Mobile Public Library. The program will be "Music from the Baroque & Romantic Periods." Ph: 380-4690