Rare Music Emerges at Centennial Concerts for Alum Lou Harrison

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

SAN FRANCISCO CLASSICAL VOICE -- Classical music loves its anniversaries, especially those ending in 00. Centenary, bicentenary celebrations provide an excuse to sum up a composer’s work and rehash the same old well-known warhorses.

Not so with last weekend’s tributes to Lou Harrison revolving around the beloved California composer’s hundredth birthday, May 14, 2017. The four concerts I attended emphasized how much initiative and creativity performers need to perform even familiar Harrison works. Harrison himself proved to be a source of new and unexpected pleasures, 14 years after his death at age 85. Rather than a summation of greatest hits, the weekend proved to be a revelation of how much of Harrison’s music still awaits discovery.

For a composer who’d been studying and playing historically informed baroque music since his student days at San Francisco State in the mid-1930s, the harpsichord feels entirely idiomatic, blending beautifully with the other instruments in a way the more muscular piano never could. The greater, subtler variety of textures available in the original make a lighter, more enchanting blend, woven silk instead of taut steel.