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March 7, 2011

Weekend whirlwind, round 3: The multi-cultural music of Lou Harrison

The Post-Classical Ensemble has a great track record for creating vibrant programs and festivals that go beyond the surface and beyond the routine.

The most recent example, a venture with George Washington University that wrapped up over the weekend, was called "Sublime Confluence: The Music of Lou Harrison."

I'll well understand if you're wondering Lou who? -- Harrison's amazing music doesn't get nearly the attention it deserves. This American composer's world-embracing style, greatly influenced by Indonesian gamelan music and concerned with opening up fresh vistas of tuning and structure, has an appeal that classical music organizations, ever hoping to attract younger and more diverse audiences, should be championing.

Saturday night's concert at GWU's Lisner Auditorium included tantalizing clips from the documentary film "Lou Harrison: A World of Music" by Eva Soltes, and a colorful prelude of traditional Javanese gamelan music from the Wesleyan University Gamelan Ensemble.

The California-based Harrison, who died in 2003, found himself liberated, in a way, by exposure to those Javanese sounds and idioms. To very cool effect, he used musical elements from the East and West in several pieces that create remarkably satisfying effects.

Post-Classical's program included a movement from the Concerto for Piano and Javanese Gamelan from the mid-1980s; soloist Lisa Moore, playing on a specially tuned grand, delivered the score in bright form with the Wesleyan group.

Chris Gekker, on piccolo trumpet, also artfully negotiated "Buraban Robert" with the gamelan ensemble, moving about the hall to deliver his contributions. And the GWU Chamber Singers did a fine job with the hypnotic Four Strict Songs from 1955.

But the main event was ...

the Piano Concert from 1985, a work scored for totally Western instruments and tuning, yet richly resonant of the gamelan world.

In remarks to the audiences, Joseph Horowitz, artistic director of Post-Classical, described this as "the most formidable concerto for any instrument written by an American," and I wouldn't argue with that. But it's got to be the most fun, too.

Messiaen-like, the concerto has an explosive joy at times, as in the startling, perpetual motion "Stampede" movement. There's also a spiritual element, as in the meditative Largo. Above all, there's that "sublime confluence" of multicultural elements coming together logically, brilliantly, meaningfully.

Benjamin Pasternack, one of the great talents on the Peabody Conservatory faculty, gave an awesome performance at the piano, as impressive for the sheer technical stamina and security as for the dynamic phrasing. He was well-matched by the Post-Classical Ensemble, fluently and sensitively conducted by the organization's music director, Angel Gil-Ordonez.

Baltimore ought to have the chance to experience this concerto and hear it so persuasively delivered. For that matter, Baltimore ought to make room, in a variety of ways and venues, for a lot of Harrison's fascinating music. I think we've got some catching up to do.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:31 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes


I reviewed this also (very late), FYI:

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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