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New CD of Dennis Russel Davies conducting works by Lou Harrison holds pleasant surprises

By Scott MacClelland

THE NEWEST CD RELEASE dedicated to the music of Lou Harrison has just been issued by Musical Heritage Society and contains first-rate performances by Dennis Russell Davies and the Brooklyn Philharmonic. Recorded in 1997 and 1998, the title work, a suite from Marriage at the Eiffel Tower, features narration by Harrison and Virgil Thomson. Neat trick, since Thomson died in 1989.

Jean Cocteau created text and decor for Marriage, a dada-esque ballet, in 1921. Its score was cobbled from original bits by members of "Les Six," the group of French composers that included Milhaud and Poulenc. In the '40s, that great iconoclastic spirit John Cage proposed a revival of Marriage with new music by a group of U.S. composers. What came of that was Harrison's contribution, probably the only complete score by a single composer. Harrison's music, mostly in two-, three- and four-minute sections, catches the wit and snap of the original idea with pizazz, proving that the American Harrison could easily have expanded "Les Six" into "Les Sept." Davies conducts the score lovingly and with mischief, slyly goosing the syncopations and sniping in tinges of sadness, rowdy humor and subtle homages to other composers of the era.

The narration by Harrison and Thomson was transplanted from a 1977 live performance, preserving an archival sample of the two composers putting their mouths where their money is (so to speak).

Not less important is Davies's reading of the New First Suite for Strings, a wistful and haunting collection of five baroque-inspired movements composed in 1937 and tinkered with--by the composer--many times since. Among Harrison's compositions, some are decidedly cast on European models, and this is one excellent example of his dalliance into that neoclassical/neobaroque embrace that attracted virtually every major 20th-century composer, including Elgar, Respighi, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Ravel, Bartok, Barber and Bloch. Harmonic astringencies tighten and flavor the forms, which include fantasia, chorale and chaconne.

The new CD also contains three separately recorded Harrison rarities: Vestiunt silve for mezzo-soprano, flute, violas and harp; Gending Chelsea for chorus and gamelan with witty aphorisms by Thomson; and Sanctus for contralto and piano. Performers include Dennis Russell Davies, Renate Gola, Emily Golden, Timothy Malish, Karen Lindquist, Jody Diamond and the Harrison Gamelan Group.

The CD is available throught the Musical Heritage Society website (http://www.musicalheritage.com) on a trial-membership basis. Like every other Harrison CD I've heard, this one is full of pleasant surprises.

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From the August 9-16, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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