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Music Review

New West Symphony Exclaims Pleasures of Indonesian Influence

April 03, 2001|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Indonesia can get under a musician's skin. The alluring gongs, the pungent tuning, the sweet flute tunes and the intoxicating rhythms of the Indonesian gamelan orchestra entered Debussy's musical blood more than a century ago, and the islands' music has continued to animate Western composers ever since. Some of those effects were on display Saturday and Sunday in Ventura, as the New West Symphony once again lived up to its name by spending a weekend investigating the influence of the Pacific Rim cultures.

The orchestra, based in Thousand Oaks, likes exclamation points--the imaginative annual Pacific Rim series organized by Charles McDermott is "Musics Alive!"; this year's edition, devoted to Indonesia and the Philippines, was "Circles of Fire!"; and each individual program had a similarly punctuated title. Clearly there is an emphatic point to be made that many find this music absolutely liberating.

All through the programs on Saturday night at the Mission San Buenaventura ("Bali & Beyond!") and Sunday afternoon in the San Buenaventura City Hall ("Island Extravaganza!") there was a sense of Indonesia as permission-giver. ("Dances of Fire!" Friday night at the Pierpont Inn was devoted to traditional Philippine dance.)

For instance, Lou Harrison, who was the featured composer Saturday and Sunday, permitted the substitution of three trombones for the trumpets in his "Majestic Fanfare," which opened Saturday's program. He also agreed that gamelan instruments could serve for the two metallic percussion parts he contributed to "Double Music," which he wrote jointly with John Cage (who was responsible for the other two percussion parts).

Such elaborations occurred all weekend. The gorgeous orchestral Nocturne by Canadian Bali-phile Colin McPhee, an eight-minute nostalgic portrait of the island's music written in 1958, was broken up into small pieces that were used as accompaniment to a half-hour shadow play. The gamelan, Bali & Beyond, filled in the rest. That gamelan also served as the core group of a performance of Terry Riley's "In C," retuned to slightly above A due to the demands of the instruments, that ended Sunday's concert.

In these instances, the exclamation points were too bold, as if Bali were being forced upon us. "Double Music" lost its charm, not only because pitched gamelan instruments replaced the original non-pitched ones, adding a kind of banal specificity, but also because part of the fun of the piece is not knowing which composer wrote what. "In C" was given a perfunctory performance (too brief at 12 minutes), and the transposition was unsatisfying--it really is music about being in C.

The shadow play, a coronation ceremony that goes wrong and leads to war, was clever and presented behind a stunning screen illuminated by fire. But the desiccated Nocturne served neither McPhee nor the play. Also on Saturday, "Pulau Dewata" (Island of the Gods) by Claude Vivier, another Canadian who was infatuated with Bali, was heard in an orchestration by John Rea with self-consciously peculiar doublings.

Indonesia's influence had the most impact when it wasn't underlined. Saturday night's notable work was the Southern California premiere of Harrison's Piano Concerto, written in 1985 on a commission from Keith Jarrett. It does not have specific Indonesian elements (as many of Harrison's scores do)--the first movement is a big sonata form; the second is modeled upon a medieval European dance. It requires nonstandard tuning based upon a system popular in the Baroque era.

And yet this large-scale piano concerto with its wonderful melodies, energetic rhythms and, in the slow movement, its serene, starry halo of overtones, could not have come from a composer who was not infused with music from many cultures, Indonesia among them. The work, given a solid performance by pianist Teresa McCollough and sensitively conducted by New West music director Boris Brott, is one of the treasures of American concerto literature. Sooner or later it will catch on in a big way.

On Sunday, Harrison's brief, exquisite Suite for Cello and Harp from 1949 was played warmly and robustly by cellist Armen Ksajikian and harpist Maria Casale in the council chambers of the City Hall, a delightful room overlooking the coast. Gloria Cheng brought unusual drama to a selection of Cage's Sonatas and Interludes in the atrium, under a looming statue of Father Junipero Serra. Neither work is Indonesian-inspired, although the non-Western mood fit.

But perhaps the most inspired breaking of musical boundaries occurred on the top floor of the City Hall, once a women's prison and now a bare space with great views. It was used as a site for an instillation of Cage's eight-track tape piece "Bird Cage," (in a version realized by Joel Chadade). In it Cage murmurs and birds chirp or talk. The composer wanted the audience to feel free as birds, and in this space where the floor is still scarred with the markings of the cell partitions, the liberating influence of the weekend was complete.

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