Extending for 530 feet, the nave of Washington National Cathedral, the world’s sixth largest, can easily accommodate several orchestras. On Jan. 23, it held three: PostClassical Ensemble, directed by Angel Gil-Ordóñez; the Indonesian Embassy Javanese Gamelan, directed by Pak Muryanto; and the Indonesian Embassy Balinese Gamelan, directed by I. Nyoman Suadin.
This was no ordinary concert; PostClassical Ensemble events never are. The “experimental music laboratory,” founded by Gil-Ordóñez and Joseph Horowitz in 2003 and now the cathedral’s ensemble-in-residence, presents densely thematic programs, often with a multimedia component.
This one’s theme was “Cultural Fusion: The Gamelan Experience.” Referring both to an ancient type of Indonesian music and a percussion orchestra that performs it — often accompanying traditional puppetry and dance — “gamelan” comes from the Javanese word for a mallet and the act of striking.
A gamelan (the orchestra) generally includes bamboo flutes, bowed and plucked string instruments and singers, but the dominant instruments are variously sized metallophones, xylophones, drums and gongs.
Claude Debussy heard a gamelan and watched dancers at the “Kampong Javanais (Javanese Village),” one of six sections of the “Village Nègre” at the Exposition Universelle de Paris of 1889, in which several hundred indigenous people from French colonies lived, made art and performed during the six months of the fair.
“It was an epiphany for him,” said Horowitz, who wrote in the program notes that “no other non-Western musical genre — whether African, Middle Eastern or Asian — has nearly so impacted on the Western tradition.”
The case could not have been made more strongly.
The Javanese Gamelan began the proceedings. In “Sesonderan,” four dancers in red and gold formed lines and squares, moving in unison to the ringing, rhythmic music (with male singing) and flicking the ends of their long red scarves. Seated on three sides, audience members did not always have a clear view; multiple cameras were used to feed video — including close-ups of the musicians, in saffron-colored blouses — to screens propped among the cathedral’s limestone columns.
“Peacock Dance” featured three barefoot dancers with silk-winged costumes and peacock headpieces. Immediately after they walked off, pianist Wan-Chi Su began Debussy’s “Pagodes” of 1903. Next came Maurice Ravel’s “La vallée des cloches” of 1905, played by Benjamin Pasternack (both pianists are PostClassical regulars).
Then, at the west end of the nave — the Javanese Gamelan was at the east end — the Balinese Gamelan, musicians dressed in green, performed “Taboeh teloe.” Su and Pasternack followed with two-piano transcriptions of that piece and another made by Colin McPhee, a Montreal-born composer who built and lived in a bamboo house in Bali in the 1930s.
One of the evening’s revelations was that Javanese gamelan and Balinese gamelan sound different. According to a brief video, the Javanese style reflects the hierarchy of the cosmos. The core melody has a “gravitational pull” and the great gong is like “the period that separates one sentence from the next.” In contrast, Balinese gamelan, which was also performed during the intermission to a gathered crowd, is a thrilling if sometimes frightening thunderstorm of chimes and drumming.
To complete the first half, Su and Pasternack gave stunning joint performances — almost organ-like at times, especially given the setting — of three more Indonesian-inspired works: the first movement of Olivier Messiaen’s 1943 “Visions de l’Amen,” Su covering the upper register and Pasternack the lower, sometimes bouncing on the bench for maximum impact; the first movement of Francis Poulenc’s “Sonata for Two Pianos” of 1953; and Bill Alves’s minimalist, metronomic “Black Toccata” of 2007.
Program notes about Lou Harrison, the composer featured in the second half, were provided by Alves, PostClassical’s “in-house gamelan expert,” as well as by Horowitz, who lists Harrison, Silvestre Revueltas and Bernard Herrmann (the focus of “Beyond Psycho” on June 1) as the composers “consistently championed” by PostClassical. For Harrison’s centenary in 2017, the ensemble not only gave concerts but made a radio program and a Naxos recording.
Like Debussy’s, Harrison’s encounter with Indonesian traditional music came at a world’s fair — 50 years later: San Francisco’s Golden Gate International Exposition, which ran from February of 1939, when the composer was 21, through September of 1940. In the 1960s, he constructed his own “American gamelan” from tin cans and oxygen tanks. Harrison studied with a gamelan master, Pak Cokro, in Berkeley, California, in 1975 and finally visited Indonesia in 1983.
In the line of American musical eccentrics that includes Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Harry Partch and John Cage, each of whom he knew (he also studied with Arnold Schoenberg in Los Angeles), Harrison was sometimes pigeonholed as a creator of works that were both too exotic and too melodic. His stature began to rise in the 1980s, along with that of younger composers such as Philip Glass, who was influenced by Indian music, and Steve Reich, who was influenced by African music and, yes, gamelan.
The two works in the second half, both conducted by Gil-Ordóñez, were Harrison’s “Suite for Violin, Piano and Small Orchestra” of 1951, with Su and violinist Netanel Draiblate, and his “Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” of 1985, with Pasternack as soloist.
The “small orchestra” for the suite was truly small; most players stood, with Draiblate behind the podium and off to the side, facing the ensemble. In addition to Su on concert grand, the piece called for a “tack piano,” with tacks affixed to the felt pads on the hammers, and a harp. Gil-Ordóñez made full use of the intimacy to deliver a beautifully balanced performance, with each of the six movements — two titled Gamelan — distinct in color, texture and dynamics.
That Draiblate’s silvery playing was entirely free of flash made it even more impressive; he was completely in control, the tone pure in lines that seemed to go on and on.
For the concerto, Draiblate — also concertmaster of orchestras in Annapolis, Lancaster and Lake Forest, Illinois — was concertmaster of an ensemble of about 30. Not only are the acoustics in a cathedral problematic for chamber music, but the piece, commissioned by jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, was written for a non-equal tuning known as Kirnberger No. 2 Well-Temperament (no trumpets allowed).
Both Gil-Ordóñez and Pasternack seemed to relish the challenge, Pasternack unfazed by the rapid passages and tone clusters, played with an “octave bar,” in the second of four movements, titled Stampede. The last movement, perhaps the most gamelanish of all, starts with a tingle (in the two harps, I believe). A triangle marks time, various clacks come from the percussion, the trombones spell something out in low tones and a bass drumroll brings the piece to an end.
PostClassical’s 2019 gala, featuring cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan, will be held on Feb. 19 at the Embassy of the Republic of Armenia. An Armenian festival, “The Color of Pomegranates,” will be a highlight of the ensemble’s next season, in the spring of 2020.