Sunday, February 19, 2017

Other Minds 22 Launches with a Double Centennial Celebration

Last night Mission Dolores Basilica hosted the first of the two concerts for this season’s Other Minds 22 festival of new music. The title of the entire festival is Just 100: Homage to Lou Harrison. However, last night’s program was entitled Pacific Rim Centennials, because, in addition to honoring Harrison in this year of his hundredth birthday, the program also included three pieces by Korean composer Isang Yun, who was similarly honored, having been born on September 17, 1917.

It is probably important to observe that there was significant personal resonance with the program that was prepared for last night, because the concluding selection was my very first contact with Harrison’s music; and I have never forgotten that experience. Ironically, it came from the days when I was first acquiring the craft of writing about dance. I was at Jacob’s Pillow Dance for the beginning of the summer festival; and the final work on the program was “Clear Songs After Rain.” This had been created by Norman Walker; and it consisted of six short movements, each intended to be a choreographic haiku. Walker set his piece to a six-movement suite that Harrison had composed in 1951 with solo parts for violin and piano accompanied by a very small orchestra.

Walker had probably discovered this music through a Composers Recordings, Inc. (CRI) album on which the soloists were the Ajemian sisters, Anahid on violin and Maro on piano. Anahid was married to record producer George Avakian, who was instrumental in not only getting the piece recorded but also recruiting Leopold Stokowski to conduct. The exotic sonorities of the score made such a deep impression that I barely remembered the choreography, but I played the album with great frequency on the campus radio station of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Last night was therefore personally significant, because it was my first opportunity to listen to that suite in performance, rather than on recording. The “role of Stokowski” was taken by conductor Dennis Russell Davies. Again there was a “marital connection,” since the piano solo was taken by Davies’ wife Maki Namekawa, last seen here almost exactly two years ago as one of the three pianists in the program of the twenty piano etudes composed by Philip Glass prepared by San Francisco Performances.

The violin soloist was Yumi Hwang-Williams, but the deepest impression came from just how small the orchestral ensemble was. The piano was one of three keyboards, the others being a celesta (Evelyn Davis) and a tack piano (Andrew Jamieson). Three winds (Joanna Martin on flute, Janet Woodhams also on flute but doubling on piccolo, and Kyle Bruckman on oboe) were complemented by three strings (cellists Emil Miland and Crystal Pascucci, playing separate parts, and Scott Padden on bass). That left harpist Meredith Clark and percussionist William Winant, whose only instrument was a tam-tam.

There was an almost uncanny transparency to Harrison’s blending of these diverse sonorities, as well as a sense that each of the six movements involved an overlay of individual activities, rather than any more traditional approaches to either counterpoint or harmony. It was also easy to appreciate how the brevity of each movement could have inspired Walker to create a dance around the concept of haiku. Most important, however, was Davies command of balance, which, in the conducive acoustics of the Mission Dolores Basilica, allowed the attentive listener to savor every one of Harrison’s sonorous qualities, both as individual events and through the skill with which he combined those events.

The other ensemble work on the program was also by Harrison, the third of a series of pieces he called “Canticle.” The music was composed in 1941 at a time when both Harrison and Cage were devoting much of their attention to writing for percussion. For this piece Davies conducted five percussionists (Winant, along with Dan Kennedy, Loren Mach, Ben Paysen, and Nick Woodbury), to which were added Martin on ocarina and Brian Baumbusch on guitar. However, neither of the latter two were given any pitch specifications; so they both amounted to “percussion by other means.” This piece also provided an excellent opportunity to appreciate Harrison’s ability to overlay both sonorities and rhythms, the latter often inducing new dimensions of rhythmic complexity. Davies knew exactly how to manage the tempo, and the coordination among the performers could not have been more impressive.

The remainder of the program consisted of chamber music selections by both Harrison and Yun. The Harrison pieces were his very early (1938) piano sonata (his third), in which he explored how to adopt Arnold Schoenberg’s serial techniques to his own purposes, and the much later (1988) “Grand Duo” for violin and piano. The latter was a major undertaking, lasting more than half an hour. Only two of its five movements were performed. Davies was the pianist for both pieces, accompanied by Hwang-Williams in the duo.

The two of them also performed Yun’s “Gasa.” He was also represented by two solo pieces. Hwang-Williams played the first of two violin pieces he called “Kontraste;” and Namekawa played his last solo piano work, “Interludium A,” so named because it was written for pianist Aki Takahashi. In contrast to the Harrison selections, Yun’s approach to composition tended to focus on individual sonorities, even when they arose for multiple notes sounding simultaneously. There was also a sense that listening to his music is analogous to looking through a magnifying glass. The result is highly stimulating, but it is also cognitively demanding.

The entire program was thus an abundance of diversity. However, that abundance sustained over about three hours. Where unfamiliar offerings were concerned, that was quite a bit to try to take in as part of a single concert-going experience. Nevertheless, even in the face of cognitive overload, there was much to engage the attentive listener; and both Harrison and Yun were well served by the experience.

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