The dramatic and diverse music of Lou Harrison deserves multiple listenings to reveal all of the layers and substance it presents. This collection of two concertos originally on compilations from the Crystal label have been combined on one CD, giving the world Harrison's sparse and ethnic world view of 20th century post-John Cage expressionism. These pieces leave little doubt that Lou Harrison belongs in the upper echelon of contemporary music composers, such as his influences Arnold Schoenberg and Henry Cowell or peers Steve Reich and Conlon Nancarrow. With Harrison being fond of so-called "junk percussion" (i.e., brake drums, custom metallaphones, flower pots, coffee and garbage cans, washtubs, and gas canisters), Asiatic elements, and angular motifs, his music has a symmetry and kinetic drive in its written components while providing the freedom to improvise. The Los Angeles Percussion Ensemble plays on both concertos, stripped down to five pieces for the Alban Berg-influenced Concerto for Violin & Percussion Orchestra. Lead violinist Eudice Shapiro (from the Buffalo and Rochester Philharmonics in New York and professor at the University of Southern California) is given much leeway, playing abstract and insistent lines on the first movement, Allegro Maestoso, over inserted taps on snares and woodblocks, and driving into Largo; Cantabile with its sad and soulful romanticism. A separate but unequal lead voice from Shapiro runs to an animated 6/8 Allegro, Vigoroso, Poco Presto as the combo courses together in a horse romp with haughty intrigue. Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orchestra has a larger eight-piece drum corps with piano and celeste, offering extraordinary timbral contrast. It sounds as if David Craighead (Organ Chair at the Eastman School) is playing a C-3 Hammond, but it is an original M.P. Moller, a rebuilt and modified instrument courtesy of Manuel Ramirez. The sound is more resonant and resilient, the tones deeper, the effect chilling. The first movement, Allegro, sounds perfectly macabre, the percussion insistent and forward-moving, not integrated in the main. Where Andante sports a wheezing accordion-like sound, the wonderful Largo utilizes an eight-tone low-key peaceful yet foreboding theme, while Canons and Choruses focuses a playful splendor in the pianissimo range. But the killer segment is Allegro Finale, where Craighead employs unrelenting two-fisted chordal slam-bang syncopation that takes cues from jazz. There's a nucleus of ultimate open-armed sonic salvos, ignited by snare and wood block and fueled by the juggernaut and swaggering attitude of Craighead. Yeah! This astonishing and original music goes beyond the convention of what you might expect, even from Lou Harrison, and stands as a unique item in his discography.
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AllMusic Review by Michael G. Nastos