JOSHUA KOSMAN, CHRONICLE MUSIC CRITIC
One of the standard complaints about modern music, one that is already generations old, asks peevishly where all the melodies have gone. One reply might be: Have you heard a Lou Harrison score lately?
At 78, the Aptos composer continues to write great quantities of music of considerable grace and inventiveness, in which melodies take a well-deserved front seat.
Other aspects of Harrison's art may startle the unprepared listener. He writes pieces for flowerpots and rice bowls as well as for symphony orchestras, and his long-standing interest in the music of Asia, Africa and Polynesia turns up in ways that are both overt and subtle.
Among his vast catalog of works are a puppet opera about Julius Caesar's gay love affair, a large choral setting of a Buddhist text translated into Esperanto ("La Koro Sutro,'' available on an excellent New Albion CD), a jazzy, quirky Piano Concerto, and a huge array of music for Javanese gamelan.
But what binds all these disparate pieces together is a determination to reach the ears of willing listeners with writing -- and particularly with melodies -- of pro found sensual appeal.
Harrison's music has always figured in the Bay Area's concert life, particularly at the Cabrillo Music Festival in Santa Cruz, which he helped found in 1963.
A STRANGE OMISSION
But until this season, not a note of his music had been performed by the San Francisco Symphony -- a strange omission for a local composer whose work is well- represented by organizations elsewhere.
"I did feel a little left out for a while there,'' the composer admitted recently. "In fact, I was just about to tell all my publishers not to allow any performances by the San Francisco Symphony.''
But the oversight has been redressed in force this season, as music director Michael Tilson Thomas has placed Harrison's music at the forefront of his long-overdue initiative on behalf of American music.
Thomas' directorship began, in fact, with the world premiere of "A Parade for MTT,'' an exuberant five-minute curtain- raiser for the September 6 season opener with the joyous clangor of traditional orchestral instruments mixed with homemade percussion.
This week, Dennis Russell Davies leads the orchestra in Harrison's Third Symphony, and from February 29 to March 3 Thomas will conduct the "Canticle No. 3.'' Programming details for the Symphony's American Festival next June have not been announced, but Thomas is promising plenty of Harrison's music.
The composer's scores also are popping up elsewhere around the Bay Area. The Mark Morris Dance Company's all-American program, to be presented by Cal Performances October 27-29, features several of Harrison's works, including a trio of pieces for gamelan to accompany a newly commissioned dance work titled "World Power,'' and the "Grand Duo'' for violin and piano (Harrison is working on a new score for Morris). And a chamber piece, "The Perilous Chapel,'' will be done February 12 by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players.
In a musical culture that often places a premium on complexity, the breezy freshness and unabashed appeal of Harrison's writing can take some getting used to. This is not the mooning nostalgia of some contemporary composers eager to resuscitate the language of late Romanticism.
Rather, Harrison's music proceeds from the recognition that, given the alternatives, music might as well sound good -- and that European practice is by no means the only way to make it so.
"The outstanding characteristic of Lou's music is its tunefulness,'' Thomas says. "All of his music is united by a concern for melodic shape and nuances -- many of which aren't really notated. He relies on the performers' intuitive sense of the arabesques in his music -- and since he speaks in such a forthright way, the music sings in a forthright way as well.
"Whenever I perform or hear his mu sic, I always end up leaving the concert singing those tunes.''
Davies, who was music director of the Cabrillo Festival from 1974-92, premiered the Third Symphony there and has included it since on subscription programs in Chicago, Cincinnati and Philadelphia -- always, he says, to tremendous applause.
"The thing about Lou's music is that it's such a personal statement -- it expresses so directly his emotions, and at the same time it's done with the most remarkable discipline, and knowledge of both Eastern and Western musical tradition. The music just lets it all hang out.''
Harrison is every bit as beguiling and unpretentious as his music. During a conversation after September's premiere, he chatted effusively about his music and its place in the American tradition, punctuating his conversation with animated asides, chuckles and occasional loud guffaws.
Harrison's puckish sense of humor makes it into his music as well. The Third Symphony's successor, for example, which premiered at the Cabrillo Festival two summers ago, is called "Last Symphony,'' a title that Harrison cheerfully attributed to his advancing age. He added, though, that he always had the option of calling subsequent pieces "Very Last Symphony,'' and so on.
Born in Portland, Ore., Harrison moved frequently as a child, a fact he says contributed to his habit of retaining countless trunk loads of sketches, writings and completed scores.
"I counted recently and realized I was in 18 different schools before I graduated high school,'' Harrison says. "So I never really put down roots or had a peer group.''
A lifelong friend of composer John Cage, Harrison studied with Henry Cowell in San Francisco in the mid-1930s ("I always call San Francisco the city where I attained my maturity -- I can't say I grew up here, because I haven't yet''). Just last month, he offered some reminiscences of Cowell before the Symphony's performances of Cowell's "Synchrony,'' a piece he said he hadn't heard since a 1932 radio broadcast.
Harrison also studied with Schoenberg in Los Angeles, and in 1943 moved to New York, where he worked briefly for Virgil Thomson as a music critic for the Herald Tribune.
"I spent 10 years in New York, and had a major breakdown during which it was revealed that I was not a New Yorker. In fact, I was in the same hospital where George Gershwin had just died from an undetected brain tumor, so every one of us got our brains X-rayed whether we needed it or not.''
Before returning to the West Coast, though, Harrison took part in a historic event, conducting the 1946 premiere of Charles Ives' Symphony No. 3 -- the first complete public performance of any Ives symphony.
"When I was working with Cowell, I asked how to get acquainted with Ives' scores, which were mostly unpublished. He said, `Write him and use my name.' So I did, and within a month there arrived this wooden crate with 11 volumes of scores -- chamber music, both piano sonatas, all four violin sonatas, and the Second and Third Symphonies. I'm the only composer I know who grew up with this music; I would go to it daily and learn.
"Then when I did the Third Symphony suddenly everyone wanted to do it. And I kept thinking, `But there are three more symphonies!' ''
Harrison taught for a while -- at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, San Jose State and Mills College, among others -- and traveled to Asia before finally settling in Aptos.
He and William Colvig, his companion of 28 years, have collaborated on the creation of countless instruments, including more than one complete Javanese gamelan and the percussion instruments used in "A Parade for MTT'' ("it was Bill who found the proper baseball bats for beating on the oxygen tanks'').
In Aptos, Harrison spends his time composing, writing and pursuing his most recent interest, American Sign Language. In addition to the commission for Morris, he's working on a piece for Yo-Yo Ma and another for a Japanese samisen virtuoso. He vows to retire next year, meaning "no more commissions with deadlines, because that's what gets me.''
Still, it's clear that Harrison retains the infectious energy and enthusiasm that infuse his work.
"Whenever I hear a kind of music that appeals to me, my response is, 'Me too!' and I go and learn it from the bottom up.
"For example, Javanese gamelan -- I wanted to learn it and I did. I learned Chinese music and Korean music. I can still play several Chinese instruments moderately well, and I'm entitled to wear the robes of a Korean court musician, but I just never got them.
"There are so many musics that I'm attracted to. I'm fortunate in that I laid out my toys on a very large acreage when I was very young.'' _________________________________________________________________
SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY Dennis Russell Davies conducts the San Francisco Symphony in Lou Harrison's Symphony No. 3 at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday in Davies Symphony Hall, Van Ness Avenue at Grove Street, San Francisco. Call (415) 864-6000.