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Birthday Notes

SJ Symphony salutes Aptos
composer Lou Harrison

By Philip Collins

LOU HARRISON'S 80th-birthday celebrations have been going strong for four months now, and although his actual natal day is May 14, concert tributes are scheduled throughout much of the summer. The San Jose Symphony got into the act in high style last weekend with a breathtaking performance of the composer's Symphony no. 2 (Elegiac).

Guest conductor Gerhard Samuel, music director for the Cincinnati Philharmonic Orchestra and a longtime interpreter of Harrison's music, led the orchestra with poise and precision, eliciting the musicians' very best in each of the evening's works. In addition to the Harrison, the program included Mozart's Concerto for Flute, Harp and Orchestra, featuring San Jose Symphony members Maria Tamburrino on flute and Dan Levitan on harp as soloists; Charles Ives' Symphony no. 3 (The Camp Meeting); and Samuel's Auguri (Best Wishes).

The program--chosen by Harrison--was emphatically gentle-spirited three-quarters of the way through, although Samuel's fanfarelike contribution brought the concert to a riotous close. The restless dissonances of the fourth movement of Harrison's symphony foreshadowed (or augured) Auguri's raucous temperament a bit, but for the most part, the Elegiac lives up to its name most tenderly.

Completed in 1975 in response to a commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation, yet born from sketches dating back to 1942, Harrison's second symphony is a five-movement work dedicated to the memory of composer Serge Koussevitzky and his wife, Natalie. The fact that three individual movements of the score commemorate people who died in the early 1970s--the composer's mother, a close friend and composer Harry Partch--accounts for the score's especially personal nature.

The opening movement, "Tears of the Angel Israfel: Adagio," evokes its subject most disarmingly. Plaintive melodies pour forth over a slow, spiraling harmonic descent to create an atmosphere of lifelike weeping. As in a solemn procession, full ensemble passages of strings and woodwinds frame quiet refrains by tack piano and a pair of harps in tandem, the whole unfolding with an unerring sense of inevitability. Exquisite orchestrational touches--like the opening statements by oboe and solo violin in octaves, then English horn and piccolo--evoke glistening timbres that are poignantly reminiscent of tears.

The performance was revelatory, and it continued to be so during the work's remainder. The stampeding second movement moved at a bristling gallop. Its jagged, angular theme and punching brass chords brought welcome contrast, and the orchestra dug in with spurs.

The counterpoint for two contrabasses in the third movement is a special reference to Koussevitzky, who was a contrabass virtuoso long before he ever picked up a baton. The episode was carried off lyrically, if not always in perfect tune, by principal and assistant principal bassists Robert Manning and Linda Clayton.

One could easily detect the early vintage of the symphony's fourth movement, "Praises for Michael the Archangel," which Harrison began as a set of organ variations during his period of tutelage with Schoenberg in 1942. Samuel shaped the music's raging chromatic outbursts for full orchestra definitively, making utmost use of the work's cathartic peak.

The meditative, concluding Adagio ("The Sweetness of Epicurus") was nothing short of transcendent as a result of numerous delectable woodwind solos--primarily by Patricia Emerson Mitchell on English horn and oboist Pamela Hakl--along with fine trumpet work by prinicipal James Dooley and some beautifully joined string sonorities.


The ever-growing Lou Harrison archive site at SJSU.

A brief bio and sound clips for Lou Harrison.

The San Jose Symphony home page.


SAMUEL'S thoughtful and precise direction brought out the best in Ives' gentlest of symphonies. Taken on the slow side and blossoming with lyricism, the orchestra's performance brought special warmth to the composer's reminiscences of New England town life.

The score's subtle overlays of tempi were well accounted for, and the string section's phrase work was uncharacteristically unanimous. Hakl's oboe solo during the first movement, "Old Folks Gatherin'," perfectly captured the reflective tenor of the passage, calling to mind the oboe's similarly wistful quality in the final movement of Harrison's Elegiac.

The concert's single standing ovation went to Mozart's concerto, and it was well deserved. Tamburrino and Levitan invested the work with impeccably matched virtuosities, and the orchestra's support was well groomed and punctual. Tamburrino's consistently rich tone and artfully turned phrasing made her every entrance anticipated. Levitan's harp work maintained delicacy despite amplification, and he was able to keep melodic profiles in the foreground while at the same time maintaining elaborate accompanimental patterns.

During their encore, Tamburrino and Levitan offered a sweet, cadenza-style version of Happy Birthday to You to Harrison--a delightful ornament on an eminent occasion.

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From the May 15-21, 1997 issue of Metro

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