By Phil Collins
Rapturous harmonies of the cosmos filled the UCSC Recital Hall Saturday night in an exacting and exalted performance of Lou Harrison’s choral masterwork, La Koro Sutro. Nathaniel Berman (left), director of the UCSC Concert Choir, dedicated the evening’s performance as a tribute to Harrison, who passed away in February 2003 at the age of 85. The program also featured Virgil Thomson’s abbreviated Mass for Two-Part Chorus and Percussion along with an opening set of three brief solo pieces by Harrison, performed by harpist Jennifer Cass and UCSC Percussion Ensemble director, William Winant (below).
However many true musical masterpieces may have emerged from the Monterey Bay Area, the lion’s share of them emitted from the far end of Viewpoint Road in Aptos, Lou Harrison’s home for the last 50 years of his life.
Harrison had already garnered significant professional legitimacy as a composer when he relocated from New York to his family’s quaint redwood cabin not far from the Cabrillo College campus. It proved an inspiring setting for Harrison, and it was there that he created La Koro Sutro, one of the most unique and beautiful sacred works of our time. As forward looking in its ecumenicalism and sound, as it is mindfully cradled in acoustic laws and formal conceits of the past, La Koro Sutro has demonstrated impressive staying power since its premiere in 1970.
Discussion of La Koro Sutro involves a wider range of precompositional considerations than one normally encounters in Western classical music. In addition to its impressive musical characteristics, La Koro Sutro is also a sonic monument on a purely physical plane. The entire work is designed upon a specially-tuned gamelan orchestra, built by Harrison and his life partner, William Colvig. With modest means at hand, they replicated and expanded upon the Javanese gamelan “metallophone” orchestra with “found” instruments such as sawed-off oxygen tanks, wash tubs, garbage cans, assorted lengths of aluminum pipes, a bass drum, and such shaker items as maracas and a bell tree. They tuned the ensemble to an adjusted D Major scale of ‘pure’ intervals, based on a tuning created by Ptolemy, a Greek mathematician of the first century A.D.
The title, La Koro Sutro refers to the Buddhist scripture upon which the work is based, The Heart Sutra. It’s also a clue to astute linguists that Harrison chose to set his piece in the international language of Esperanto. Harrison set a number of his vocal works in Esperanto, as much for the language’s altruistic value as the sheer beauty of its sound. La Koro Sutro shows us Harrison’s most holistic use of Esperanto; in the melding of this inclusionary language and Buddhism’s pantheist doctrine, he created a theo-musical bridge of ironclad universality. Pun unavoidable.
La Koro Sutro wins one over in its first moments and doesn’t loosen its grip for 30 breathtaking minutes. Ecstatic metal clamorings and unison choral blasts in the bright key of D Major introduce and conclude the work’s seven-part form. Like pillars, these blazing evocations of Nirvana frame six inner movements (“paragraphs”) that mark stages towards enlightenment.
As if distinguishing humans from the Divine, paragraphs 2 through 6 unfold in darker melodic modes than the outer ones. Nevertheless, chants of sinewy chromaticism somehow bloom bucolic against the backdrops of resonant pedal tones and simple counterpoints. The dissonances in La Koro Sutro are not dramatic in the Western sense. In keeping with Buddhist philosophy, the musical arguments are circular and more adherent to decorum than resolution.
Harrison’s inexhaustible reserve of rhythmic devices keeps things fresh. His juxtapositions of choral passagework and instrumental ostinatos blend hand in glove, although on an autonomous basis. The parts are complementary without being interactive, resulting in unexpected rhythmic alignments and deliciously hypnotic musical textures.
Berman’s focused direction drew performances of strong musicality from his forces. The choir delivered Thomson’s mini-mass with smiling lyricism and a missed step or two, but later championed the daunting hurdles of intonation, diction and range in La Koro Sutro with infectious grace.
The set of three solo Harrison pieces began with Winant’s choicely nuanced performance of A Solo for Anthony Cirone for tenor bells in Just D Major. Jennifer Cass then beautifully rendered two of Harrison’s most beloved harp solos, Music for Bill and Me and Serenade for Frank Wigglesworth.
If you were not among the fortunate 250 or so audience members who attended this performance, I emphatically recommend you catch the upcoming encore performance, April 11, at the UCSC Music Recital Hall. It is an all-too-rare opportunity to experience this vibrant local treasure!
Phil Collins is artistic director of New Music Works, Santa Cruz