Thursday, January 25, 2018

PIVOT Celebrates Lou Harrison’s Legacy

Pianist Sarah Cahill, arranger of last night's concert (courtesy of San Francisco Performances)

Composer Lou Harrison’s 100th birthday was on May 14, 2017; and last season offered an abundance of opportunities to learn about and appreciate Harrison’s works and life, which had ended at the age of 85 on February 2, 2003. The most extensive of these efforts was the two-concert series presented as Other Minds 22 under the title Just 100: Homage to Lou Harrison. However, his music was also presented by the San Francisco Symphony in both a subscription concert (entitled Music for a Modern Age) and a Sunday afternoon chamber music recital that included Harrison’s “Varied Trio.” San Francisco Contemporary Music Players contributed with a three-concert festival entitled Lou Harrison: A Centenary Celebration, which explored Harrison’s impact on the present as well as his own music. In addition to these many performance opportunities, Indiana University Press published an impressively comprehensive biography, Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick, written jointly by Bill Alves and Brett Campbell.

Fortunately, that celebratory spirit has reverberated into the current season. This was strikingly evident this past November when the China National Center for the Performing Arts Orchestra and its Music Director and Chief Conductor Lü Jia included Harrison’s concerto for pipa on the program they presented at Davies Symphony Hall. Last night, with May 14, 2018 just beginning to come into view, an all-Harrison program was presented by San Francisco Performances for the second program in this week’s four-concert PIVOT festival. The program was prepared by pianist Sarah Cahill, who shared the stage with violinist Kate Stenberg, the members of the Alexander String Quartet (violinists Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough, and cellist Sandy Wilson), and the William Winant Percussion Group, along with a brief appearance by Sophia Shen playing pipa.

The standard catalog of Harrison’s compositions (which is included as an Appendix in the Alves-Campbell biography) was compiled by Leta Miller and Frederic Lieberman. It has 313 entries running from an elegy for solo piano composed in 1927 to “To Honor Mark Bullwinkle,” composed for Javanese gamelan in 2002. There are any number of reasons why it is unlikely that there will ever be a comprehensive account of this catalog; but its breadth practically guarantees that any all-Harrison concert is likely to turn up at least one selection that will be new for each member of the audience. In my case the only familiar selection was the performance of “Varied Trio” by Cahill, Stenberg, and Winant, whom I had previously heard play this piece in November of 2016. Everything else on the program was a “first contact” experience; and I must confess that I felt like a kid in a candy store.

Cahill opened the program with her only solo performance, the three-movement suite A Summerfield set, consisting of a sonata, a ground, and the concluding “Round for the triumph of Alexander.” The piece was named for Susan Summerfield, the harpsichordist who arranged a teaching position for Harrison at Mills College; and the piece can be played by either piano or harpsichord. The piece was one of several on the program that drew attention to Harrison’s contrapuntal skills, which always struck an imaginative balance between traditional practices and strikingly original sonorities. That technique was equally evident in the five-movement “String Quartet Set,” for which Lifsitz recalled Harrison’s coaching when the Alexander played the piece at San Francisco State University. In this piece also counterpoint is thrown into an entirely new light through Harrison’s imaginative definitions of rhythm through “delay” techniques, suggesting an ancient practice in which one player would follow another’s lead.

Most of the program, however, was devoted to the thoroughly cosmopolitan approach to percussion sonorities presented by Winant and his Percussion Group of students. As may be guessed from his pipa concerto, Harrison was a passionate advocate for world music long before that phrase became part of working vocabulary for the rest of us. Where percussion was involved, this often entailed finding the right media to produce the right sounds by digging around in junk yards. As a result, he could evoke an Aztec spirit for “Song of Quetzalcoatl,” whose instrumentation was far from “authentic” but whose impact was no less compelling. On the other hand, for the threnody piece he wrote in memory of the Mexican composer Carlos Chavez, he chose to accompany a poignant viola line with the subdued subtlety of Javanese gamelan practices.

The evening as a whole ran about two hours without an intermission. However, the diversity of Harrison’s compositions was so great that there was “never a dull moment.” As we near the end of Harrison’s centennial year, it was hard to avoid feeling that this evening had a bit of a valedictory feel to it. For my part, however, I took it as a reminder of just how extensive and broad are the selections in the Harrison catalog. I, for one, would be just as happy were these regular occasions to visit those selections continue with just as much dedication and imagination even after the calendar has crossed Harrison’s 101st birthday!

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