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The Gamelan Experience

New York
St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church
02/24/2024 -  
Lou Harrison: Concerto for Piano with Javanese Gamelan
Gustav Mahler: Blumine
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A major, Opus 92

Adam Tendler (Pianist)
Son of Lion, Jody Diamond (Music Director), Brooklyn Chamber Orchestra, Philip Nuzzo (Artistic Director, Conductor)

P. Nuzzo/A. Tendler (© Yamaha Artists/Atwater Reed Artists)

Enjoy hybrid music, because that’s all there is. We’re all human beings, We have the same ears and we have the same feelings. There’s no ‘they’ there anymore. We’re all ‘we.’
Lou Harrison

For 150 years, gamelan music has offered singular opportunities for Debussy and Britten and (the authentic scholar) Colin McPhee. But only Lou Harrison, the poet, calligrapher, painter, hiker, trekker and–of course–composer had the love, the expertise, the genius, the Zen reality to make the gamelan the bedrock of his music.

This was not a pentatonic topping to his Western learning . With his 85 gamelan works, including last night’s Concerto for Piano with Gamelan Orchestra, he did more than build a huge gamelan orchestra, with overtoned keyboards, drums, and bell. He re tuned the piano to meld with the gamelan for his original timbres.

Those of us who have experienced all-night gamelan concerts in Java or Bali might not be totally entranced by this hybrid. In Java, the gamelan is an eight-hour palette of resonances, the pentatonic themes repeated over and over again, the quarter‑notes turned to eighth-notes, the drums giving a varied always expressive rhythm.

More important, the music runs with the winds, the trees, the murmurs of the audience, the chatter–like tambourines–of Indonesian children listening from outside the gates, And of course the moon and stars and candles spreading soft radiation over the music.

Yet, Lou Harrison had no intention of replicating this in his Concerto. It was meant for a concert hall. Or in this case a massive church. Instead of the reverberations of an authentic gamelan, he composed motifs, subtle rhythms, the colors of different xylophones (Apologies for the word “xylophone” but that comes nearest to the Indonesian keyboards.)

The result was a concerto grosso. That extraordinary pianist Adam Tendler, whose concert of John Cage was one of the highlights of 2023, here played counterpoint with the orchestra, and–with his re‑tuned piano–nothing less than another gamelan instrument.

(Incidentally, I am reluctant to use the word “solo”. The Java town of Solo is not only a mystical lodestone, but has the greatest schools of gamelan in all Indonesia.)

Son of Lion, 48-year-old NewwYork‑based gamelan ensemble, has 14 players of technical magnificence and the most subtle colors. One does not simply hit the notes with one‑handed mallet or hammer. The right hand creates the sound, the left hand gently presses the same note to limit the overtones. When making music with Mr. Tendler, one rarely heard the piano on its own. Rather, the keys blended in, so gongs and drums were part of a gentle tintabulating series of waves and points.

Son of Lion

The three movements were different. “Bull’s Bell” was an introduction to all the instruments, the untitled second movement presented Mr. Tendler with unaccompanied notes with soft percussive runs, later joined by the orchestra.

The third, “Belle’s Blood,” put the two together, not exactly in a voluminous finale, but a sense of joy, real joy, the vibrations drifting from stage through the whole church.

A hiatus to clear off the plethora of keyboard, drums and gongs gave way for the Brooklyn Chamber Orchestra to give another rare work. Gustav Mahler had withdrawn the original second movement of his 1st Symphony, and most conductors follow his will. Still, that Blumine has certain historical interest, as well as a few Mahlerian trumpet solos, played beautifully by Tiago Linck. Otherwise, the work was lackadaisical, mono‑keyed (C major) and a mere curiosity.

Now a confession. With typical Manhattan snobbery, I wasn’t expecting much from the Brooklyn Chamber Orchestra with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

With untypical Manhattan humility, I was in error.

The 40 members of the Brooklyn Chamber Orchestra–approximately twice Beethoven’s original–offered a terrific, jauntily-paced performance.

Of course it lacked the grandeur of, say, Vienna or Berlin. But conductor Philip Nuzzo obviously heard the “dance” for the “dance symphony.” His tempos were snappy, even in the cryptic Allegretto. He almost doubled the tempo for each repeat in the third movement. And the finale was a no‑holds‑barred jovial party of rhythmic strings and brass together.

Yes, the opening Lou Harrison was an esoteric exotica. Yet Beethoven, as usual, triumphed, especially with Mr. Nuzzo’s buoyant performance.

Harry Rolnick



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