The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Let us now praise — and program — Lou Harrison, the prophetic American composer who pioneered both personal and professional diversity in music | May 20, 2017

By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear has heard the name of Lou Harrison.

But he doesn’t recall ever actually hearing any music by Lou Harrison (below).

Maybe that will change, now that the centennial of Harrison’s birth is being marked.

Perhaps the UW-Madison or a smaller local group will do something, since neither the Madison Symphony Orchestra nor the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra has programmed anything by Harrison in their next seasons.

The Ear certainly hopes to hear some of Harrison’s intriguing and prophetic music, which seems to be a harbinger of contemporary globalism and world music, performed live. Harrison’s work seems to presage Yo-Yo Ma‘s crossover and cross-cultural Silk Road Ensemble, but was way ahead of its time and without the commercial success.

In any case, it seems very few composers pioneered and championed both personal and professional diversity through Asian sounds and an openly gay identity. Completely genuine, Harrison seemed creative and imaginative in just about everything he touched and did.

If you, like The Ear, know little about the maverick Lou Harrison, an excellent background piece, recently done by Tom Huizinga of National Public Radio (NPR), is a fine introduction.

Here is a link to the story:

Harrison composed a lot of music, including concertos for piano and violin, that shows Asian influences and combines them with traditional Western classical music. Below is a YouTube recording of his Double Concerto for Violin and Cello with Javanese Gamelan from 1981-82.

Have you heard or performed Harrison’s music?

What do you think of it?

Would you like to hear it programmed for live performance more often?

Leave your opinion in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. Hi, Jake! I totally agree that Harrison should at least get a few of his works performed in his centenary year — along with Henry Cowell, Harry Partch, and Alan Hovhaness, he has been vastly underrated and underperformed, and his compositions, like the others, are IMO very listener-friendly. The percussion department here in Madison is the group I would nominate to perform/spearhead a few Harrison works in 2018 — the Indonesian gamelan is a very beautiful instrument to listen to, and he has written quite a number of compositions utilizing it in varying ways. And I agree with you about his gayness — he lived it openly ,and with unfailing grace.

    Comment by Tim Adrianson — May 20, 2017 @ 7:57 am

    • I also find it fascinating that it is not the people/listeners who oppose this kind of programming (see another column here a few weeks back in which nearly all the comments were in favor of more adventurous programming); it is the “gatekeepers”. By that, I mean the people who play and program music on the radio, and the conductors and music directors who do likewise for the concert halls, and yes, reviewers and blog writers.

      Usually, their excuse is this: if we schedule those people, no one will come and we will lose $$. But if you look at the really successful concert programs in the USA, it is the more innovative ones (like those in San Francisco, Seattle, LA) that are doing so well and some of the more traditional ones (Detroit; and even Philadelphia) that are having/have had economic problems.

      MSO (Milwaukee) did very well–economically and artistically– under the innovative programming of Edo De Waart (who has made a career of it). And performing the likes of Lou Harrison and Alan Hovhaness doesn’t have to mean a loss of artistic integrity either! See just about any orchestra that Gerard Schwarz has conducted. Or look at Minnesota Public Radio’s record of expansion and growth; and yes, they tend to play lots of “new” music.

      Unfortunately, Madison, which is an innovative and creative university city in almost all ways but classical music, is beset with a group of gatekeepers who prefer music written in candle light to that written after the advent of electricity. The music department at UW, and some smaller groups are perhaps the major exceptions (and yes, it is doing quite nicely!) as is Bach Dancing and Dynamite which also puts together some amazing programs.

      Comment by FFlambeau — May 20, 2017 @ 7:26 pm

  2. Good column by the Ear.

    And isn’t this a true but sad commentary: “Perhaps the UW-Madison or a smaller local group will do something, since neither the Madison Symphony Orchestra nor the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra has programmed anything by Harrison in their next seasons.”

    Sadly, it’s not only true about Lou Harrison but also about Alan Hovhaness (an Armenian/American) who also had lots of Asian influences in his music; Philip Glass (who recently celebrated his 80th birthday) to zero fanfare from the local biggies; and even someone like Leonard Bernstein. One of the local maestros here rode to his job on Bernstein but has done very little in programming him, despite its being the centenary of his birth next August. It’s sad that the Anchorage, Alaska, Symphony Orchestra will devote an entire program to Bernstein, while we get nothing. And it’s not just next year.

    Sad too that the most innovative conductors around, Edo de Waart and James Smith, are retiring while we are left with the less adventurous ones and their steady diet of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms.

    I’ve often thought that it would behoove the UW to devote an entire weekend to great but neglected composers like Harrison, Hovhaness (they were friends) Glass and even Bernstein. Programming could run from panel discussions to workshops to student performances to chamber music to orchestral and choral works. I think they could get funding for it and it would provide Madisonians with some necessary alternatives to the “usual suspects”.

    Meanwhile, here’s a nice piano concerto by Lou Harrison (performed by Keith Jarrett) that has lovely Eastern overtones:

    Comment by FFlambeau — May 20, 2017 @ 12:47 am

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