The recent Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival featuring the inventive music of Ned Rorem underscored the fact that theres plenty of worthwhile American contemporary music out there thats simply not played enough. Like Rorem, Lou Harrison has eschewed serial music in favor of tonal music. But these composers are far from reactionaries; their music is vital, enlivened by a fresh musical vocabulary. Harrison, born 82 years ago in Portland, Ore., is still brimming with creative ideas.
Long before world music became an almost trendy genre, Harrison was influenced by Asian music, particularly from Indonesia. The gamelan a Javanese percussion ensemble has played an urgent part in Harrisons oeuvre, most notably in his 1974 Suite for Violin and American Gamelan. For ease in transport, Harrison cloaked the work in a new garb in 1993, calling it Suite for Violin with String Orchestra. The piece has retained its Asian influences, however, and the percussive flavor is kept alive in the Estampie movement, with players from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra rapping on their instruments and violinist Maria Bachmann turning in a sympathetic performance.
The lovely but elusive Suite for Cello and Harp, which dates from 1949, is a reflective work inspired by cave paintings in Lescaux, France. Its strange but infectious modes also recall Eastern flavors, with the languid Aria movement, drawn out in an expansive legato line, being of particular merit. Harpist Dan Levitan and cellist Nina Flyer are fine musical comrades and persuasive Harrison exponents.
The darker 1995 Suite for Cello and Piano is inflected with requisite melancholy, but it could profit from sharper articulation from the musicians in the pointed Allegro section.
The recital is rounded out by early piano pieces unrecorded until now and played with elan by Michael Boriskin. Harrison bends the rhythms in his Three Waltzes so they come across as wonderfully woozy pieces with a Gallic-influenced nod toward Poulenc and Milhaud, while the Polka, Jarabe and Gigue & Musette further emphasize Harrisons flair for dance forms.