With his pioneering Pacific Rim vision, gentle but insistently maverick sensibility, closet-refusing openness, and abiding generosity, Lou Harrison was the quintessential California composer. In celebrating his centennial, the invaluable Bay Area new music organization OtherMinds presents several programs devoted his lustrous, path-breaking body of work with “Just 100: Homage to Lou Harrison.”
The tribute kicks off Saturday, Feb. 18, at Mission Dolores, where Dennis Russell Davies conducts Harrison's Suite for Violin, Piano & Small Orchestra and the gloriously clanging Canticle No. 3. Written for a menagerie of metallic found objects and traditional Chinese instruments, Canticle No. 3 came out of Harrison’s sojourns through San Francisco’s Chinatown in the late 1930s when he was on faculty at Mills College. Davies takes over the Steinway to play Harrison's “Grand Duo” (with violinist Yumi Hwang-Williams) and the obscure Sonata No. 3 for Piano, from 1938.
It’s impossible to take Harrison’s measure in a few concerts, which is why OM has created a website that lists international events related to his 100th birthday (including the Mill Valley Philharmonic performing “Seven Pastorals” on March 11 and 12, and San Francisco Contemporary Music Players “Centenary Celebration” April 21-22 (The San Francisco Symphony's SoundBox series already dedicated a weekend to Harrison in December)). As a poet, dancer, calligrapher, ardent Esperanto advocate, committed pacifist, trenchant music critic, and pioneering gay rights activist, the house of Harrison contained mansions. And until his death in 2003 at the age of 85, the long-time Aptos resident supported and nurtured successive generations of California composers.
Pulitzer Prize-winning Berkeley composer John Adams, the subject of numerous events celebrating his 70th birthday this year, recalls driving down to Santa Cruz in 1972 in his Karmann Ghia to borrow Harrison’s gamelan. He called Harrison out of the blue, “and he didn’t know me from Adam,” recalls Adams, who dedicated his piece “A New Day” to Harrison, and has often conducted Harrison's music with major orchestras.
The OM celebration continues May 20 at Mission Dolores with Lou Harrison Gamelan Masterpieces, a program conducted by Nicole Paiement, and brimming with Harrison treasures such as 1974’s Suite for Violin & American Gamelan performed by violinist Shalini Vijayan and the William Winant Percussion Group, and 1972’s “La Koro Sutro” featuring the Mission Dolores Choir, Resound, organist Jerome Lenk, harpist Meredith Clark, and the William Winant Percussion Group.
“He was always a very generous soul," says Adams. "Lou was really the only certifiable West Coast personality as a composer when I was coming up, but even back then, in the '70s, he didn’t have a big reputation outside the state.
"I think people thought he was a little odd, writing for gamelan and welcoming all kinds of Asian influences. [But] after minimalists came around, Lou’s music became quite relevant.”