By Brett Campbell
March 14, 2011
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The shimmering, seductive sounds of the Javanese gamelan beguiled American composer Lou Harrison (1917-2003) from the first time he heard them, in 1939 at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Exposition. Harrison [Musical America’s 2002 Composer of the Year] composed dozens of works for gamelan beginning in the mid-1970s, and often called its sound the most beautiful on the planet.
The Post-Classical Ensemble, of which Joseph Horowitz is artistic director, recently presented a mini Harrison festival on the campus of George Washington University, featuring two and one-third of the composer’s finest works. By way of introducing Harrison’s oeuvre to the uninitiated, a symposium on March 4 at the Indonesian Embassy included a brief demonstration and explanation of traditional Javanese gamelan music, drawing a capacity crowd of more than 200. The event also featured a symposium in which Wesleyan University’s gamelan ensemble director and scholar Sumarsam, biographer Bill Alves and Indonesian Ambassador Dino Patti Djalal persuasively distinguished Harrison’s sensitive, thoughtful “confluence” of Western and Asian musical forms from “exotic” cultural forms appropriated by commercial interests.
The discussion/demonstration provided nourishing context for the following evening’s concert in GWU’s Lisner Hall. The Wesleyan gamelan performed Harrison’s jubilant “Bubaran Robert,” with trumpeter Chris Gekker playing his processional phrases on stage and in different parts of the hall. The gamelan ensemble was sensitive throughout, as it was to former Bang on a Can pianist Lisa Moore on the next piece, the first movement of the composer’s brilliant, dramatic 1987 Concerto for Piano and Javanese Gamelan. Horowitz later told me they had decided to omit the other two movements for fear of taxing listeners’ stamina, but truncating such a stirring showpiece left the concert’s first half feeling imbalanced. (The complete work is available on a splendid new recording by Seattle’s Gamelan Pacifica.)