Never, perhaps, was there a more fitting program for Jacaranda’s motto “music at the edge” than the one served up Sunday evening: two rare works by two iconoclastic Pacific Rim composers, performed almost literally on the Rim itself at Santa Monica’s First Presbyterian Church during a solar eclipse.
Terry Riley’s ground-breaking exercise in repetition “In C” is world-famous, but hardly anyone has ever heard its followup, “Olson III” – which, incredibly, was receiving its large-scale U.S. premiere. According to the detailed program note, “Olson III” derives its title from street slang for marijuana (make of that what you will).
“Olson III” operates on a similar principle as “In C” – 30 short patterns played in order and repeated as many times as the individual performers desire – but the results are quite different, almost like an evil twin. Whereas “In C” establishes a peaceful communal rhythm, “Olson III” is loud, arhythmic, amorphous, grating on the ears.
The 1967 world premiere in Stockholm provoked a major ruckus, and I can see why – people weren’t used to relentless high-volume assaults then – but Sunday’s audience seemingly had no problem. The 66-or-so mostly-young musicians and choristers softened some of the impact of their huge yet unamplified sound with dynamic fluctuations – and on Riley’s suggestion, ran through all 30 patterns at the outset before beginning the repetition process.
Lou Harrison’s Suite for Violin, Strings, Piano, Celesta and Two Harps – a more practical arrangement of his Suite for Violin and American Gamelan – is another species entirely; it is gorgeously melodic, breathing Asian air. Kerry Lewis’s arrangement alters the character of the outer movements considerably – invoking a somber, almost Bach-Stokowskian complexion – but it is just as ravishing as the original, and violinist Alyssa Park nailed it with incisive, emotional playing. Why this piece isn’t played more often now is a mystery.
Fortunately, both performances were recorded for hopeful release.