Although he is widely known as a percussion pioneer, an explorer of alternate tunings, and a collector and user of exotic instruments, Lou Harrison (b. 1917) also manages to make the venerable combination of violin and piano sound fresh and exotic in this highly diverse score written for the 1988 Cabrillo Music Festival, which is held near his long-time home in Aptos, CA, near Monterey Bay.
The title "grand duo" was frequently used in the early-Romantic era for large-scale suite-like duet pieces. Lou Harrison and others have revived the term late in the twentieth century; in this case Harrison's title is justified by the work's 35-minute dimensions, divided into five movements.
Harrison's interest in various pentatonic scale formations shows itself in the first movement of the Grand Duo, marked "Prelude, Moderato." The piano part seems to consist of separate lines mostly stating five-tone scales of various sorts in a somber mood, while the violin part, a sad and meditative, finds melodies in the scales.
The second movement is called "Stampadé, Allegro." This title is a variant of one that Harrison has used frequently for scherzos with an aggressive edge; other versions of the word are "estampie," "stampede," and "istampita." The movement is rapid and a bit grim. The rhythm is triple, but with shifting accents. The violin part often uses double stops and includes insistent repeated notes, but mostly it is a driving force in the music. The piano's left hand keeps up rhythms while the right hand is more varied and includes a section with piercing tone-cluster chord streams used as a color device rather than harmonically.
Lou Harrison's pieces often have some sections that bear a dedication to some of his many friends. In this case the title of the third movement, "A Round (Annabel's and April's), Molto Moderato, generally tender" also suffices as a description of it.
The emotional core of the work is the fourth movement, "Slow and Sometimes Rhapsodically." Harrison returns to a piano texture similar to that of the first movement -- arpeggios and scale patterns in the right hand, strong and grim octaves in the left hand, with violin sonorities that sometimes flow with the piano figurations, sometimes are purely melodic, and other times are anguished double stops.
The final movement is a total reversal of mood, marked "Polka." The piano starts a vamp on an oompah pattern and chordal material in the right hand, while the violin embroiders various types of melody on it, from a klezmer-like opening theme to a mini perpetuo moto. Then the piano seems to want to start disrupting things. It shifts its accents to a three-beat pattern. When this fails to faze the fiddle, it throws in the tone-cluster chord streams from the second movement, and things get funnier from there. It's not for nothing that when asked how he would be remembered, Harrison said he didn't know -- "Just that he's an old man who had a lot of fun."