New World fetes Lou Harrison in wide-roving chamber program

By Lawrence Budmen

Flutist Demarre McGill was the guest artist in the New World Symphony’s chamber program Sunday in Miami Beach.

Lou Harrison was an American original. The California-based composer rejected both atonality and the Americana/neo-classicism of Aaron Copland and his circle of composers. Instead Harrison looked to the Pacific Rim, producing a series of works inspired by the sounds of the Balinese gamelan and the Far East. 

Since Harrison’s death in 2003, his music has almost disappeared from the concert repertoire but, with recent artistic currents pointing toward Asia (including such classical fusion groups as the Silk Road Ensemble), the time may be ripe for a revival of Harrison’s orchestral, chamber and vocal scores. 

Typically ahead of musical developments, the New World Symphony presented three of Harrison’s compositions at a chamber concert aptly titled “Mavericks” Sunday afternoon at the New World Center.

Four excepts from the 1950 ballet score Solstice illuminated Harrison’s muscular, pulsating brand of exotica. His melodic writing flows in constant long arcs. Instrumental combinations produce unique sonorities that are unlike that of any other composer. The duo of celesta and tack piano (a piano with tacks pinned into the hammers) imitate the sounds of a gamelan. In “Entrance of the Moon Bull,” the bass player hits the strings of the instrument with sticks. “Blaze of Day” heralds the sunrise in a burst of triumph with trumpet and flute in full bloom.

An eight-member ensemble gave a rousing performance of Harrison’s unique work. Thomas Steigerwald on celesta and Wesley Ducote on the tack piano kept the throbbing undertow in constant motion. Aaron Ney’s soaring trumpet and Johanna Gruskin’s silvery flute dueted to magical effect. Levi Jones was the percussive bassist.

Two movements from Suite for Cello and Harp (1949) were inspired by music of the Renaissance, Harrison’s other great passion. The harp provides the only harmonic seasoning in the spare thematic threads of “Aria.” A swaying rhythm pervades the rollicking “Pastorale.” Cellist James Churchill was slightly too sober in this rondeau-infused dance but his tonal compass effectively captured Harrison’s reimagining of the sounds of early instruments. Harpist Chloe Tula has been a standout New World player this season and she brought elegance and keen musicianship to this enticing confection.

The Concerto No. 1 for Flute and Percussion (1939) is one of Harrison’s earliest works. The flute part is limited to three pitch intervals but ranges from intoxicating dance beats to a reverie on Eastern modes and strokes of triple tonguing at fast pace. Demarre McGill, principal flute of the Seattle Symphony, was fully equal to this test of the instrumentalist’s technique, playing with alluring tone and agility. Michael Daley and Charlie Rosmarin kept the restless undercurrent at full heat on drums, bells and gongs.

Michael Tilson Thomas’s Notturno for flute, harp and string quintet provided a lyrical interlude. There is more than a hint of Italian bel canto in this salon-styled vignette. The score’s second part is a virtuosic romp that quotes ‘Funiculi, funicula” at several points. McGill floated the pastoral melody of the opening over hazy harp and strings and raced through the finale with dashing aplomb. Tula’s elegant harp glissandos were buttressed by the excellent string ensemble of violinists Michael Rau and Christina Choi, violist Daniel Fellows, cellist Alan Ohkubo and Antonio Escobedo on double bass.

A touch of birdsong via Olivier Messiaen’s The Blackbird produced flute tones that seemed to come from a more distant realm. The deeply Catholic composer saw bird calls as other worldly sounds and that is obvious in his musical depiction. Gruskin brilliantly traversed the flutter tongued and high pitched chattiness of Messiaen’s portrait. Ducote was her attentive keyboard partner.

Beethoven’s Quintet in E-flat Major for piano and winds, the program’s audience-pleasing closer, is an authentic charmer. The young Beethoven was very much under the spell of the recently deceased Mozart when he penned this score in 1795. The  graceful theme of the Andante cantabile seems tailored as the backdrop for aristocratic festivities and the vivacious and playful spirit of the concluding Rondo brims with memorable melodic writing.

While Steigerwald ‘s accuracy and musicality were firmly displayed, he was far too understated in the outer movements where Beethoven’s piano writing approaches concerto-like proportions. In the slow movement, however, he was outstanding, curving elongated phrases in long paragraphs and maintaining strong balances with the winds. 

The sweetness of Joo Bin Yi’s oboe, the molten warmth  of Justin Cummings’ bassoon, enlivening force of Angelo Quail’s clarinet and, especially, the perfect control and heft of Dominic Brancazio’s horn were distinguished in solo moments.

Jeffrey Milarsky conducts the New World Symphony in Augusta Read Thomas’ Prayer Bells, John Adams’ Doctor Atomic Symphony and Steve Reich’s Tehillim with Synergy Vocals  7:30 p.m. December 7 at the New World Center in Miami Beach.  305-673-3331

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Mon Nov 25, 2019
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