California composer Lou Harrison always did things his own way, even as New York-based critics disparaged his music for what they identified as its open, "have a nice day" qualities and as musical academics rejected what they felt was his nostalgic attachment to melody and tonality. New World Records' Lou Harrison: In Retrospect makes available once again recordings released on the Musical Heritage Society and MusicMasters labels missed by many the first time given the scarcity of the original releases and lack of critical support that attended them. Flutist and musicologist Leta Miller, who has done much on behalf of Lou Harrison's reputation and legacy, plays a central role in this program, performing on three of the four works included and contributing the booklet's informative, if rather technical, notes. All of these recordings were made at the University of Santa Cruz, where Miller teaches; the ballet Solstice and Ariadne were recorded in 1989 and the First Concerto for flute and percussion and Strict Songs were done in 1992 in observance of Harrison's 75th birthday, though the original MusicMasters release didn't appear until he was 77!
The four works included range from 1939 for the First Concerto for flute and percussion to the revision of 1955's Strict Songs in 1992. As with several of Harrison's very early works, the First Concerto for flute and percussion is an amazing piece, seemingly light years ahead of its time -- the flute plays arching, octatonic-sounding figures derived from a limited set of intervals as the percussion performs short rhythmic "loops" as accompaniment. Ariadne, written nearly 50 years later, is sort of a cousin to this piece; there is more to do for the soloists, it is more accomplished in style, more conservative in outlook, and a little shorter. The inclusion of these two works on the same album is useful in that they bookend the major aspects of Harrison's development. Devoted equally to the modal language of Pacific cultures and English Renaissance music, among other things, Harrison's melodic tendencies remained a constant even as the settings changed, from a rather bitter harmonic profile in the '50s and '60s to a sunnier one later on.
All of these performances are quite good, even authoritative, particularly the one of Solstice, an important work in Harrison's canon as it came about shortly after he suffered a nervous breakdown that led to a re-orientation of his life's priorities. The only drawback is that the chorus seems a little far away at times in the Strict Songs; otherwise, the sound is well-engineered, especially considering the modest, collegiate origin of these recordings. In the '80s and '90s any effort made in getting Harrison recorded was necessarily a labor of love; even as he made the rounds of the symphony orchestras and music schools, the significance of his endeavors was lost on many who should have been squarely in his camp. Harrison's stock has gone up since his death in 2003, and unfortunately, this has not necessarily led to a great many new recordings in the cash-strapped classical music market. Nevertheless, it is useful to have some of these older ones come around again; many listeners who would have liked to have obtained the MusicMasters recording of Seven Pastorales, which came out at about the same time as these other ones, had the experience of being turned away as the disc proved so short-lived. New World scrupulously keeps its entire catalog in print, so Lou Harrison: In Retrospect should be around long enough for those who want it to add it to their libraries.