On Friday, Ballet West’s National Choreographic Festival in Salt Lake City presented a world premiere by world renowned choreographer Val Caniparoli inspired by Lou Harrison’s Concerto For Pipa and String Orchestra.
Harrison’s last completed work for orchestra arose from a suggestion by Harrison’s great friend and advocate, the conductor Dennis Russell Davies, that he write a concerto for Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man—reversing Harrison’s earlier process of pairing a Western solo instrument with an Asian orchestra.
“Well, I’m not going to write anything like pipa traditional repertoire, a lot of virtuoso kind of a style,” Harrison told Wu Man. Nevertheless, Harrison worked closely with Wu Man to adapt his work to the idiomatic idiosyncrasies of the instrument. “Do I do tremolo here?” she asked, describing their collaboration, “or do I do bending notes, do I do vibrato? You know, how can I make the piece more vivid, how can I put more sauce in this piece? Right now, it’'s just linguini, or the notes.”
Harrison owned a pipa, and though able to extract only the most rudimentary melodies from the instrument, he was able to understand what types of fingerings and chords would work. In the end, impressed by Wu Man’s artistry, Harrison allowed her considerable interpretive latitude for her solo part.
His concerto’s first movement followed the traditional pipa music pattern, using Chinese pentatonics with occasional substitute tones. However, he structured the movement’s lyrical middle section like a Javanese lancaran eight-beat form, with the high violin and pipa melody set against a repeating bass melody in quintal counterpoint. The other movements use transpositions of a quirky six-tone mode that allowed Harrison to slip between a sense of tonality and more ambiguous sections.
The second movement, another of Harrison’s “mini-suites” he used in his symphonies, where the traditional scherzo would be replaced with a series of short sub-movements. This one is called “Bits and Pieces” and comprises four sub-movements. In the first, “Troika,” the pipa assumes the role of a Russian balalaika in a woozy, drunken sleigh ride sleigh-ride dance, complete with (non-diatonic) oom-pah chords. A sort of percussion ensemble sub-movement follows, called “Three Sharing” because one each of a cellist, a bassist, and the soloist share a set of seven rhythmic patterns (Harrison called them "rhythmicles") played entirely by striking the body of the instrument or hitting the strings with the wood of the bow, turning them into percussionists as he had done as long ago as his San Francisco percussion concerts. In the middle section, Harrison arranged the rhythms as a fugue for the instruments, as he did as far back as his 1937 percussion ballet, Changing World. He dedicated the next evocative miniature to the composer Liu Tianhua, who played a central role in bringing the techniques of Western theory and orchestration to Chinese traditional instruments in the early twentieth century, in the same way that Harrison had brought Chinese techniques to the West. Harrison’s use of the pipa to evoke lute-type instruments around the world continues in the last section of the this movement, a romantic Neapolitan song with the pipa now in the role of a tremolo-ing mandolin.
The mood darkens in the slow movement, a “Threnody” (Harrison’s alternative name for an elegy, common to many of his suites), this one dedicated to the memory of San Francisco’s best-known AIDS activist, Richard Locke, who had died the previous September. Unlike Harrison’s mostly chromatic late elegies, this modal one sounds uncharacteristically sweet and wistful, though it ends on a chord as unresolved as the AIDS epidemic. The bright pipa sound, so well suited to the jocular earlier movements, would sound intrusive here, so Harrison restrains it to a few notes, letting the grave string melody set the melancholic mood. The dramatic finale rides another Harrisonian estampie, a medieval dance that was a favorite of Harrison's, to a surprisingly aggressive climax.
In this last of his great Asian–-European fusions, Harrison again contrived a creation from seemingly incompatible forces that feels different from any other music, yet simultaneously seems not only natural but even inevitable. Before the Concerto for Pipa with String Orchestra’s 1997 premiere at Berkeley, a journalist asked Wu Man, “What style of music is this? Is it Chinese music?”
“It’s Lou Harrison music,” she replied.
©2017 Bill Alves & Brett Campbell. If you enjoyed reading about Harrison’s music, there’s a lot more where that came from. Our new biography of Lou Harrison is now available from Indiana University Press and elsewhere.