Tuning In: Post-Classical Ensemble at Lisner Auditorium, March 5, 2011

According to Bill Alves, for Lou Harrison, “the most pure form of musical expression—the ‘take-home pay,’ as he used to say—was in melody.” Alves, a composer who’s writing a biography of Harrison, was one of several people whose discussion enriched the evening of Harrison’s music that the Post-Classical Ensemble and George Washington University presented at Lisner Auditorium on Saturday night.


He also looked the most like a Munchkin of all the great American composers

Harrison’s influences range widely; the P-CE concentrated on his explorations of and writing for gamelan, the Javanese orchestra of percussion instruments and metallophones. In the gamelan, melody serves as the foundation of the music, developing slowly, through repetition, accretion, and ever-shifting rhythms. In addition, gamelan music uses a five-note scale at different intervals than your standard Western opus, and each gamelan (the literal meaning of the word is basically “orchestra”) is tuned differently to produce those intervals, thus having a unique sound.

Gamelan music fascinated Harrison, who made his own American gamelan, the first of which I learned from the program notes was called “Old Granddad,” just like the bourbon, which I thought was worth noting. But he didn’t simply ape the ancient Javanese traditions; he merrily mashed them up with Western forms and instruments. The resulting music is unique yet feels immediately approachable, thanks to that fount of melody.

It’s also difficult to marshal the resources to perform the music. For example, Harrison’s concerto for piano and orchestra, the centerpiece of Saturday’s concert and, according to P-CE artistic director Joseph Horowitz, “the most formidable concerto for any instrument by any American composer,” requires a piano in a different tuning than normal and an orchestra stripped down to instruments that can match that tuning, i.e., strings, trombones, and percussion.

The word “formidable” might not spring immediately to mind when considering this concerto; after a thunderous opening, the music suddenly turns lush with melody, and though Harrison sets the first movement in perfect sonata form, his presentation and development has little of the struggle or deliberate surprise you find in previous Western exemplars of this form. As he discussed in illuminating post-concert remarks, soloist Benjamin Pasternack found inspiration for his playing in the sound of the gamelan, giving even loud notes a bell-like tone and evenly accenting his melodies, letting them flower naturally. His improvised cadenza, which came right where it does in Beethoven and Mozart’s concertos, seemed designed to show just how ruminative and searching his playing could be, and was more impressive in context than a virtuoso showpiece would have been.

Virtuosity instead reigned in the second movement, titled “Stampede” and bursting with rhythmic energy—only the piano and a drummer play for the first few moments, the piano relentless and percussive, the drummer bouncing him forward with odd accents. Pasternack dispatched all of it with brio and amazing stamina, while P-CE music director Angel Gil-Ordonez led the P-CE orchestra in equally vigorous rhythmic accompaniment.

In the third movement, the retuned strings gave Harrison’s hushed music an unearthly quality, the unequal intervals stacking to create chords of rare sweetness. Pasternack matched the orchestra’s intensity; the sublimity of the atmosphere recalled, as Horowitz suggested in pre-performance remarks, the slow movement of Brahms’ first piano concerto, but the world was Harrison’s own. Continuing Harrison’s play with the idea of the piano concerto, the finale loosely draws from the North Indian technique of the Jalas, yet it sounded  like a jaunty, whistleable rondo in this performance—Harrison extending the tradition idiosyncratically, irresistibly.

Unfortunately, the “Four Strict Songs” for chorus and orchestra that followed could easily be resisted. These also had a retuned orchestra and repeating melodies, but somehow the textures felt thin and bare. The strictness of the melodic settings (each phrase a certain number of notes, etc.) meant that words like “the” received an awful lot of incongruous melisma. And Harrison himself wrote the poems, with sort-of evocative nature images that the GWU Chamber Singers had trouble enunciating and projecting over the orchestra.

Before the concert, folks taking their seats heard the Wesleyan University Gamelan Ensemble under its music director Sumarsam playing traditional gamelan music, both a pleasant accompaniment to the audience introitus and a way to acclimate to the sound of the gamelan in advance of two of Harrison’s works that involved the ensemble.

We heard only the first movement of the Concerto for Piano and Javanese Gamelan, which proved to be enough in this performance; the gamelan sounded lovely, but pianist Lisa Moore took a thoroughly Western approach to her part, with attack and phrasing far more aggressive than what we heard from the Wesleyanites. I’d chalk it up as an interpretive choice with which I don’t agree, but her piano’s volume swamped the gamelan’s as well. Trumpeter Chris Gekker, on the other hand, managed to pipe three iterations of a melody over the gamelan without obscuring the orchestra’s music in “Bubaran Robert.” His clear, bright tone sounded as clean as the struck metallophones in the orchestra, yet coolly removed as well. The latter quality was emphasized as Gekker delivered his melody (unaltered otherwise) from three different places in the hall before exiting out the back door as the band played on.

One hopes bands will keep playing Harrison, even with the difficulties some of his music poses, and particularly the piano concerto, a work to convince skeptics of the fitness of modern music if ever there was one. The P-CE has done another fine service to the DMV in putting this concert on; let’s have another local orchestra take their example soon.


The dedicated P-CE concertgoer could have attended not only this concert but also watched a documentary on Harrison a week earlier and hit the Indonesian Embassy the night before for some gamelan time. Although few people’s schedules are likely to allow full immersion in such a schedule, I do like how the P-CE always gives you the option of nerding out even more, should that appeal to you.

There were not a lot of people at Lisner on Saturday night; the auditorium looked about half full from where I was sitting. People sometimes ask me what should be done to attract young people to classical concerts, under the misapprehension that (a) I’m young and (b) I would know—after all, I already go to classical concerts. But this is something young, open-minded culturephiles should have really enjoyed, in my blinkered opinion. I guess we’re all just going to have to keep working. But, if any culturephiles happen to be reading this: P-CE concerts are reliably intelligent and fun.

Other People’s Perspectives: Anne Midgette and Tim Smith…from two days ago. Sorry this is so late. I got sick. Fortunately we seem to have enjoyed entirely different things about the performance.

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One Comment on “Tuning In: Post-Classical Ensemble at Lisner Auditorium, March 5, 2011”

  1. […] that on Thursday I heard Joseph Horowitz discuss Western music that sounds like a gamelan for the second time in six days. I live a little over a mile from my parents, and I saw Joseph Horowitz more during that time than […]

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