One of BMOP’s most memorable concerts of the last several years took place in 2009, a Jordan Hall performance that culminated in George Antheil’s brutalist percussion symphony, the “Ballet Mécanique.” But Antheil’s paean to pounding — a prime specimen of Machine Age interwar modernism — was preceded by another percussion work that seemed to drift in from an altogether distant cultural universe, tranquil and sun-drenched: California of the early 1970s.
The work was Lou Harrison’s “La Koro Sutro,” a serenely beautiful choral setting of an ancient Buddhist text in an Esperanto translation. Under Gil Rose’s baton, the Providence Singers sang with distinction, but the work’s spell was equally cast by the sui generis ensemble of percussion instruments on stage, assembled from the likes of steel washtubs, PVC piping, and sawed-off oxygen tanks. Harrison and his partner Bill Colvig invented this percussion orchestra, with its own custom tuning, and dubbed it the “American Gamelan.” By 2009 the instruments were too fragile to be shipped, so BMOP commissioned its own American Gamelan to be built by Richard Cooke, based on the original.
The fruits of that Jordan Hall concert have been finding their way to the ensemble’s in-house record label, with “Ballet Mécanique” previously released. “La Koro Sutro” may not have the same visual charisma when experienced on disc, but the instruments still sound glorious in their resonant plinking, polychrome rumbles, and deeply intoned vibrations, which call to mind the voicing of some cosmic background hum. Above this bed of sound, the Providence Singers (Andrew Clark, director) again render this lullingly pentatonic music with warmth and clarity.
On this album, BMOP also includes Harrison’s Suite for Violin with American Gamelan, in a bewitching performance by soloist Gabriela Diaz, who finds just the right blend of heartfelt expression and cool restraint. Harrison created this modest yet mesmerizing score, a kind of imagined sonic meeting of East and West, with help from his student and friend, the violinist Richard Dee. The closing Chaconne has a seductive poetry in its steady tread, one that almost rises to the level of its own worldview. The airborne solo line appears to chart its course in real time, gliding on the music’s warm thermals, blowing in from a West Coast cultural moment no less palpable for its unmistakable distance.