Lou Harrison, that one-of-a-kind American composer, lived much of his life in the Bay Area, growing enamored of Indonesian gamelan and Chinese Opera during his youthful San Francisco years, later settling into his role as an icon of East-West compositional stylings, while living near Santa Cruz. That's well known. Perhaps less well known is that this mighty figure -- who championed Ives and studied with Schoenberg -- spent years on faculty at San Jose State University, from the late '60s into the '80s.
Sunday night, conductor Barbara Day Turner led the San Jose Chamber Orchestra in a superb concert of works by, or inspired by, Harrison, drawing on the talents of some excellent composers and instrumentalists who taught, studied or performed with Harrison, often at San Jose State. The program -- at Le Petit Trianon, just a few blocks from State in downtown San Jose -- was sumptuous. And it served as a reminder of the school's musical legacy, straight through to its conclusion: the premiere of "EKTA II," an evocative piano concerto by Brent Heisinger (emeritus professor of music at State), featuring the gifted soloist Gwendolyn Mok (the State professor who runs its keyboard division).
But let's stick with Harrison (who died in 2003) for a few more minutes.
His Suite for Violin -- actually a co-composition with Richard Dee, who also taught at State -- was the heart of the program. It was mesmerizing: sensuous, graceful, lush and lilting;
Cynthia Baehr, the orchestra's concertmaster, was the soloist. And what a performance she gave, drawing Harrison's long-lined melodies like a golden thread through the tapestry of the piece.
The suite's six movements are inspired by ancient Greek hymns, medieval dance, a set of Baroque variations and the
That work's serenity and ritualistic ambiance carried into the premiere of Heisinger's "EKTA II," commissioned by Day Turner and the orchestra.
A number of years ago, Heisinger composed his first "EKTA" -- a Hindi word for "unity" or "oneness" -- which merged East Indian and jazz forms. His "EKTA II" forges a different type of East-West unity across six movements. In it, Chinese pentatonic scales and percussion (gongs, temple blocks) meet a Western (though still Asian-influenced) vocabulary that draws on Ravel, Harrison and the motor-driven pulsings of Steve Reich. A single pentatonic scale provides much of the work's source material. And a whooshing, shimmering, four-person percussion section is given a pair of interludes and opportunity for improvisation.
The piano is the through-string.
Rising amid the reverberations of a Chau gong and the drone of strings, soloist Mok's opening figures rippled very much like Ravel (she happens to be a Ravel specialist), and then began to toll, percussively springing up from her left hand. In "Ballade," the second movement, her floaty atmospherics gradually were surrounded by the orchestra -- a lilting embrace that opened into a gamelan-esque procession. In the "Dance" movement, Mok's flurries were not only Impressionistic -- think Ravel filtered through Gershwin -- but almost bluesy. And in the final "Elation (homage to Harrison)," she stenciled big 10-fingered chord sequences; rapid-fire outbursts amid softer pulsings from the strings.
Delicate, then fierce, hers was a performance of clarity and consistent impact.
And with its glassy stillnesses and motor-driven drama, "EKTA II" is a skillful and enchanting work. It could use a true cadenza for the soloist -- and deserves more performances. If only Harrison could have heard this tribute from Heisinger, his friend and colleague -- and from the all-star percussion section, which included Galen Lemmon and Mark Veregge (who both studied with Harrison) and Anthony J. Cirone (who taught at State with Harrison and spent decades with the San Francisco Symphony). The fourth percussionist was Patricia Niemi, too young to have known Harrison.
Incidentally, the program was dedicated to the memory of Leigh Weimers, the San Jose Mercury News columnist, who championed Harrison's music, this orchestra and the South Bay arts scene, generally.
The program began with "Pizzicato" by New York-based composer Vivian Fung, who -- echoes of Harrison once again -- is influenced by the gamelan, and who here turned the orchestra into what sounded like a teeming chorus of crickets. This imaginative work was followed by "Elegy for Lou Harrison" by Kerry Lewis, who was in the house, and deserved the enthusiastic applause that greeted this gripping work, full of quivering Expressionist shadows and long-lined Harrison-esque charms.