Pacific Overture

Going Coastal: Juilliard's tribute to Lou Harrison exemplified his music's serenity and astonishing flights of fancy.Photo: Peter Schaaf

The new-music establishment here in the Northeast has always viewed the laid-back attitudes toward composition that prevail way out West with more than a hint of lofty disdain. Perhaps that explains why most of the usual suspects who turn out for New York’s contemporary-music concerts were conspicuously absent from the Juilliard School’s recent weeklong Focus Festival, this year entitled “Beyond the Rockies.” Even music critics were scarce at the four out of six concerts I attended. Too bad, especially since there was a special emphasis on that grand old man of the musical West Coast, Lou Harrison, whose music is not played nearly enough hereabouts and who died, at age 85, just two days after Juilliard’s festival ended.

Come to think of it, even this tribute seemed a bit sketchy, with just one Harrison piece on each program except for the festival’s finale, and even those choices didn’t necessarily include his most representative scores. I suppose an in-depth survey was impossible considering this prolific composer’s fondness for unusual instruments more easily obtained in the Pacific Rim than New York City, particularly the Indonesian gamelan with its complement of metallophones, bowed and plucked chordophones, gong-chimes, and even more exotic sound-makers. Then, too, Harrison was more of a companionable colleague than a charismatic authority figure who vigorously promoted his ideas and nurtured disciples. At a round-table discussion before one Juilliard concert, several Harrison associates admitted that when they got together, they seldom discussed his music or anyone else’s. In response to a question from the audience, one composer recalled that his most indelible image of Harrison was watching him successfully bond with a friend’s dog who suffered from mood disorders.

That seems appropriate for a man who was, by all accounts, as quirky, gentle, open-handed, and sweet-tempered as his music. I’ve never heard one Harrison piece that didn’t convey that impression, and so it seemed appropriate to end this Focus Festival with one of the composer’s most frequently encountered works, the Elegiac Symphony, written in the forties and revised in 1988. Its serenity and astonishing flights of instrumental fantasy perfectly reflect Harrison’s character and the complementary lessons he learned from his two principal teachers: Charles Ives, who gave Harrison his license for freedom, and Arnold Schoenberg, who taught him the importance of simplicity and method. The symphony is a strangely compelling, even mystical piece, to which Harrison appended a pair of epigrams that now seem more poignant than ever in light of his sudden death: Horace’s observation that “bitter sorrows will grow milder with music,” and Epicurus’s belief that “where Death is, we are not; therefore Death is nothing to us.”

Even Leonard Bernstein never cast a longer posthumous shadow over the New York Philharmonic than the one George Szell draped over the Cleveland Orchestra and which hovers to this day. Szell may have died in 1970, but to many, his name is still synonymous with Cleveland. Christoph von Dohnányi, who was the orchestra’s music director from 1984 until last season, once quipped that every time he and his men played a great concert, Szell got a fabulous review. Apparently Lorin Maazel, Dohnányi’s immediate predecessor, had similar problems. Now it is Franz Welser-Möst’s turn to try to dispel that formidable ghost. The new music director seemed eager to do so during a recent series of concerts at Carnegie Hall, even to the extent of turning over an entire program to pianist Mitsuko Uchida, who led an all-Mozart evening from the keyboard. The two later Welser-Möst programs that I attended, though, most definitely made a personal statement and showed a conductor who has clear preferences of his own.

Welser-Möst’s choices included works by Schubert, Mahler, Johann Strauss, and two contemporary scores, all subjects that Szell had addressed at one time or another in his day, but not music with which the older conductor was especially identified. The results were surprising in more ways than one. It was particularly fascinating to hear how the Cleveland approached the Mahler Seventh, still this composer’s least-played symphony. Never have I heard the nocturnal atmosphere that Mahler was at such pains to incorporate into the score more magically conveyed, all through subtle balances of instrumental color and shapely phrasing of the thematic material. Nor was the sheer symphonic power of the piece neglected—the Rondo-Finale worked up a mighty head of steam to produce a thrilling conclusion. With more imaginative performances like this, the Seventh could well become as popular as its companion symphonies.

Kaija Saariaho’s Orion proved to be an ideal program mate for the Mahler. Commissioned by the Cleveland and first played last month, this piece explores an entirely different world of night fantasies, one that features Orion as hunter, demigod, and constellation. All of Orion’s mysterious capacities are suggested in this absorbing three-movement tone poem through its rich harmonic coloring, shifting timbres, and fluctuating rhythmic patterns, as well as a thread of pensive lyricism that now animates this important Finnish composer’s instrumental music—one reason, no doubt, why her opera L’Amour de Loin was recently such a big hit at the Salzburg and Santa Fe festivals.

Welser-Möst’s biggest surprise was to devote half a program to a suite of Johann Strauss waltzes and polkas, fare usually reserved for New Year’s Eve or other light-hearted occasions. Perhaps it’s time to take this carefully composed, endlessly inventive music more seriously—we will have another opportunity next month when Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Vienna Philharmonic play an even more generous assortment of Strauss in Carnegie Hall. That said, the Cleveland performances were oddly disappointing: inflexible, poker-faced, and without a hint of the sensuous rubato that gives this music its infectious lilt. As a native Austrian, Welser-Möst surely knows better, and it may be that he will need a few more seasons with the orchestra to indoctrinate his American musicians with the correct Viennese style. Given the overall quality of the music-making, this seems like a good bet.

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Beyond the Rockies
Focus Festival at the Juilliard School.

Cleveland Orchestra
Conducted by Franz Welser-Möst at Carnegie Hall.

Pacific Overture