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Harrison and his cohorts go global

October 20, 2008|Mark Swed | Times Music Critic

A Lou Harrison craze has appeared frustratingly just around the corner ever since this poster boy for gorgeous nonconformist California music died in 2003. Friday night Jacaranda, Santa Monica's new music series, opened its new season with a half-Harrison program featuring his music for Western instruments and Javanese gamelan. In two weeks' time, the Los Angeles Master Chorale will present another half-Harrison program when it performs "La Koro Sutro" at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The corner may finally be getting closer.

Jacaranda's concert was a lively, winning occasion that also included music by two other real-McCoy mavericks with local roots: John Cage, who was born in Southern California, and Harry Partch, who died here.

The setting was Santa Monica's new Eli and Edythe Broad Stage, which got a colorful acoustic test. In Harrison's scores, mellow gongs and bells clang and peal. Cage's String Quartet in Four Parts spends considerable time on the edge of string sound and near the brink of inaudibility and unintelligibility. Partch's sassy "Castor and Pollux" was written for his homemade instruments, such as the bass marimba, which the composer designed so that its deepest pitches would vibrate through a listener's backside.

The Harrison works selected were from his hand-across-the-ocean oeuvre. Various Western instruments made for melody combine with a percussive Indonesian orchestra. A gamelan is for the eyes along with the ears. Its instruments are decorative, and the players in the CalArts Gamelan Kyai Doro Dasih (or Venerable Dream Come True) pleased in plum-colored jackets.

A gracious traveler and a generous host, Harrison asked a little more of his own kind. He let the gamelan pretty much do its thing, building structures of interlocking rhythmic patterns. The Western instruments are tuned to Javanese modes and sometimes bend pitches when that is possible. But saxophone, harp and French horn, the solo instruments in the short first three pieces on the program, kept their own sonic personalities and introduced the kind of ear-hugging melody for which Harrison had a particular gift.

The stretch proved a little too great for the soloists in "Cornish Lancaran," "In Honor of the Divine Mr. Handel" and "Main Bersama-sama." In the latter, a Western flute, rather than the Indonesian counterpart Harrison preferred, added further unease, but not so much as to make the work's hit tune uninviting.

The big piece was Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, With Javanese Gamelan, and it came off splendidly. Alyssa Park and Timothy Loo maintained their rich string tones in exotic tunings as they sailed along on gamelan background glitter. The central movement is an adapted Renaissance dance for the violin, cello and drums (played by Ted Atkatz), and it was electrifying.

The context of this program was elaborate. Connections with the Westside were many. Harrison worked with a gamelan at UCLA, where he premiered the concerto's first and last movements in the early '80s. Cage studied with Schoenberg at UCLA, and Partch also had relations with the campus.

But Jacaranda found other links. As it did last season, it is again highlighting Olivier Messiaen, who like many of his French Impressionist predecessors was gamelan-drunk. Cage's quartet was begun in Paris and is Satie-inspired.

In this work, Cage hoped to escape harmony and maybe even rhythm. He asked for no vibrato. Pitches are restricted through the use of mathematical formulas. When played perfectly in tune -- when the high whistling harmonics are pure and time is permitted to flow without being pushed -- the quartet's fresh, open sounds give the impression of space opening up, making the mind receptive to fresh thoughts.

That is exactly what happened during an expertly nuanced performance by the outstanding Denali Quartet. The Broad is a fine space for capturing such nuances of sound, and Cage's score shimmered.

After years of neglect, Partch's pieces were reintroduced by John Schneider and his Harmonic Canon last spring at REDCAT. They dazzled then and dazzled again Friday. From my balcony seat, everything sounded crystal clear, if a tad bass-shy. The marimba tickled only the ear.


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