Barry Jekowsky / California Symphony / Al Jarreau

Lou Harrison: A Portrait

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This compact disc on the Argo label (the subsidiary imprint of Decca Records of England that specializes in less familiar music) is an outstanding introduction to the music of Lou Harrison (b. 1917), and was issued to observe his eightieth birthday in 1997.

Every work on the disc is for a different ensemble, though all use members of the California Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Barry Jekowsky. The major work included is Harrison's 1990 work Symphony No. Four, which the composer refers to as Last Symphony. Within it is found a number of the elements that have distinguished Harrison's highly individual music: a general tendency not to use harmony, an increasing tendency to base his music on rhythms and delightfully conceived melodies, a love for Asiatic sounds and modes, and a strong interest in Native American culture. Popular baritone singer Al Jarreau joins the orchestra in the role of narrator in the last movement, telling three Navajo stories about the trickster spirit Coyote.

From the beginning of Harrison's career comes Double Music (jointly composed for percussion quartet with John Cage), and a series of well-chosen excerpts from the 1949 ballet score Solstice (where Harrison's special interpretation of the sounds of gamelan orchestras came to the fore). The continuing interest in Indonesian music is strongly evinced in the concerto for violin and chamber ensemble called Concerto in slendro, written in 1961 on a Pacific Ocean freighter. Here, violinist Maria Bachman is outstanding in the solo role. And finally, there is the simple and touching Elegy, to the Memory of Calvin Simmons, lamenting the accidental death of a promising young conductor.

Recorded at the outstanding studio at George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch, the sound is full, rich, and transparent, produced by Andrew Cornall and engineered by Jonathan Stokes. A highly recommendable release.

Track Listing

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 04:48
Solstice, ballet for flute, oboe, trumpet, celeste, tack piano, 2 cellos & bass
2 04:22
3 01:59
4 02:49
5 02:32
6 03:24
7 02:29
Concerto in Slendro, for violin, celesta, 2 tack pianos & 2 percussionists
8 03:01
9 04:55
10 02:17
Symphony No. 4 "Last Symphony", for baritone & orchestra
11 07:27
12 09:12
13 11:10
14 14:25
15 04:20
blue highlight denotes track pick