Works of Lou Harrison

by "The Omnipotent Critic"

(The following does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Internet Cello Society or its representatives. It is the opinion of an individual ICS member.)

Koch International Classics
Works of Lou Harrison
Suite for Violin with String Orchestra
Maria Bachmann, violin
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra
James Sedares, conductor

A Collection of Piano Pieces
Michael Boriskin, piano

Suite for Cello and Piano
Nina Flyer, cello
Josephine Gandolfi, piano

Suite for Cello and Harp
Nina Flyer, cello
Dan Levitan, Harp

Total time: 50:37

Lou Silver Harrison is an American icon. This octogenarian from California studied with Henry Cowell, worked with John Cage, and was a champion of the music of Ives. Like many from the left-coast, (as Lush Rumbaugh would say) he has always been a rebel. After much experimentation with the new music forms of the twentieth century, he rejected them and went in search of other voices and flavors. In his excellent liner notes, Ken Smith quotes from the biography Lou Harrison: Composing a World, written by Leta Miller and Frederic Lieberman. "'Harrison's musical pot was set on the stove many years earlier. Into it he threw whatever ingredients intrigued him at the moment. The Indonesian gamelan appeared early, as did the Chinese theater and modern dance. Schoenberg and modernist New York added a different seasoning, soon to be peppered by the cross-disciplinary influences of Black Mountain College and studies in Korea and Taiwan.... There has been a constant taking out to taste and a constant putting in to modify. But whatever ingredients the musical soup has at a particular time, the resulting brew assumed a distinctive flavor, reflecting the aromas of its component parts but carrying a unique taste of its own.'"

Wow! Starting out with a quote. Harrison did more than reject systems. It has always seemed to me that he has rejected nastiness in any form. His music can be complex with the rhythms and tambours of Asia, as in the Suite for Violin With String Orchestra, or engaging and simple like the Suite for Cello and Piano, or the almost Satie-like Three Waltzes for piano solo. This recording is in fact a crock pot of the musical life and times of Harrison since the 1930s. It is a pot full of feel good ideas-sometimes simple, sometimes complex, always uplifting and positive -- a California mindset. It's not surprising from someone who has spent most of his very full life in California.

Most people know what elevator music is. Well this music is restaurant music. Every good restaurant should buy it and play it. It's good for the soul and for the digestion. Here is the menu:

This banquet begins with the main course, Suite for Violin with String Orchestra, performed by violinist, Maria Bachmann, with the fine New Zealand Symphony Orchestra under James Sedares. It is the biggest and most mature piece on the recording. It was originally for violin and full gamelan, written for the late and quite wonderful violinist, Loren Jakey. Initially it was a one movement Chaconne but this was expanded after it's initial success and a full version was commissioned by the San Francisco Chamber Music Society in 1974. The movements to the work are Trenody, Estampie, Jahla, and Chaconne. They bring together the disparate forms of Indonesian music and Western Baroque styles. Composers do like getting their works performed, even when they state, like Charles Ives, that they are only writing for themselves. There are VERY few full gamelans in the western world. Twenty years after the first performance, Harrison wrote the current version for violin and string orchestra.

Bachmann is superb and the orchestra plays very well. I think the New Zealanders are probably the least known and most under-rated of the major orchestras. Maria Bachmann has a warm sound, great rhythmic drive, and grand sense of character. She swings as does this East meets West music. Estampie would tempt one to say "Riverdance" got lifted from this piece. T.O.C. has added it to his play for pleasure pile. I don't write about the music I don't like, but you can't imagine how much junk I hear in a given week. These four tracks alone make this CD something to go out in search of.

The first set of piano works consists of Three Waltzes and a single movement piece called Western Dance. The second set consists of Gigue & Musette, Polka, and Jarobe. The producers have cleverly used these two groups to separate the three substantial works; a kind of musical chutney. The pieces were written between 1937 and the 1940's. They were in the composer's files and not dusted off until 1994 when he gave them to Mr. Boriskin to play. They are charming, simple works that Eric Satie might have written had he ever decided to remove his tongue from his cheek.

The middle and ending works are two unusual cello pieces: Suite for Cello and Piano, with cellist Nina Flyer and pianist Josephine Gandolfi, and the Suite for Cello and Harp with harpist Dan Levitan. The first is an eight-minute piece made up of three movements. The liner notes say it was commissioned by a piano-playing physician to perform with a cellist friend. The doctor died soon after Harrison had started on the work. The middle movement is an Elegy dedicated to the physician.

It's always interesting to see a piece written for players who are perhaps not masters of their instruments. The Bartok duos for violin were to be played by amateurs or beginners who could only play in the first position. (To make sure they were easy enough Bartok played one violin part [he was of course a pianist] and had his friend, violinist Zoltan Sz�kely, play the other part left handed or backwards.) The trick is to compose good stuff while not asking the players to be able to really play their instruments. The Bartok duos of course do this with great rhythmic ideas and new harmonies. One of the earliest examples of the genre is the string quartet by Benjamin Franklin. He had friends who couldn't play a note but loved music so he wrote a quartet that was to be played on open strings only. The instruments were tuned differently for each movement. What does a real player do when performing this kind of music?? If an artist uses his or her skills then the whole purpose of the thing is wrecked. As an artist do you allow yourself to sound on the crude side, use mostly open strings and let the piece speak for itself? Nina Flyer does that very well here. She doesn't try to show herself as the former principal cellist of symphonies in Jerusalem and Bergen. She plays in a relaxed and sometimes rough and ready style that lets things speak for themselves. This piece will appeal to cello teachers. It has interesting ideas that don't require a skilled pianist or cellist. The rhythmic thrusts are good and I am sure for students it would be a great work to jam on with friends.

The Suite for Cello and Harp is a ten-minute five movement affair. It is a forgotten work. No no no, not what you think. It seems a friend of Harrison's (cellist Seymour Barab) asked him to write the piece in exchange for some kind of favor. Perhaps because no money was involved, it seemingly slipped Harrison's mind and shortly before the concert the cellist who had "commissioned" the work asked how things were going. Harrison had to spit the piece out in just two weeks. It is a group of four movements with the first movement a Chorale repeated as a reprise for a total of five movements. They are all congenial, meandering, melodic constructions with a fast middle movement. This piece is also very simple for the solo instruments. I think it more likely that a harpist would program it on a harp recital or perhaps a mixed chamber music recital, than a cellist would program it on a cello recital. This is a very nice simple piece and the work never pretends to be more than it is. Nina Flyer and Dan Levitan bring out sweet simplicity. A very pleasant cream puff indeed.

Buy the recording for dinners at home and for the Suite for Violin with String Orchestra.


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