Length: 21 minutes
Orchestration: 6 great bells, 3 temple blocks, celesta, tube chimes, small Chinese crash cymbals, suspended cymbal, bass drum, snare drum, 3 wood drums, glockenspiel, 3 muted gongs, 3 high suspended gongs, 3 low suspended gongs, güiro, jangles, maracas, piano, 6 muted large plumber's pipes, large rasp, rattle, 3 tom-toms, vibraphone, and solo organ
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
A few years before he died, Lou Harrison was asked what he thought his place was in the history of Western composition. "I haven't the faintest idea," he replied. "I can only say, 'Lou Harrison is an old man who has had a lot of fun'."
Some of the fun Harrison was up to in 1972 included playing with the "American gamelan" he had created the year before with his partner, William Colvig. A traditional gamelan is an Indonesian ensemble of gongs and drums - Harrison's and Colvig's American version used steel conduit, tin cans, garbage cans, and oxygen cylinders struck with baseball bats.
Those oxygen-tank bells also found their way into the ensemble for Harrison's Concerto for Organ. Harrison received almost simultaneous requests for an organ piece and a work for percussion ensemble, so he decided to combine the two and see what would happen.
"Because the organ is a sustaining tonal instrument and much of the percussion I wished to use was to be of abstract sound without specified, fixed pitch, I felt that an intermediate group of percussion instruments of fixed pitch ought to be used. Thus there is a chorus of piano, glockenspiel, vibraphone, celesta, and tube chimes which bridge between the organ and the abstract percussion section," Harrison wrote.
He ended up with a five-movement work in arch form. The first and last movements are vigorous, up-tempo pieces, brash and energetic in sound and spirit. Separating them from the intense central Largo (a rapt homage to J.S. Bach) are two little, lyrical, and lightly scored canonic movements.
"I don't think increasing complexity is the answer to anything," Harrison has said. "I don't think significance is opposed to beauty." Ironically, the importance of simplicity is something he said he learned from Arnold Schoenberg. Harrison uses it to stunning effect here.
- John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.