Lou Harrison, one of the most adventurous composers of the 20th century – itself a pioneering era in music – was an inimitably colorful figure on the local scene.
His appearance in 1995 at Michael Tilson Thomas’ inaugural concert in Davies Symphony Hall, which featured Harrison's commissioned "Parade for MTT" remains memorable. There he was, with his Kris-Kringle beard, wearing his tent-like red flannel shirt, taking a bow, as MTT introduced him in a speech invoking Richard Wagner.
Harrison is the subject "Lou Harrison: A World of Music," a 90-minute documentary by Eva Soltes, premiering at the Castro Theatre Tuesday (and opening Friday at the Roxie). Tuesday’s event is a benefit for Harrison House Music & Arts, an artist residency-performance program in Joshua Tree founded by Soltes.
Tuesday’s screening also features an organ performance by composer Terry Riley, as well as live music by Harrison’s many other friends and colleagues, including guitarist David Tanenbaum.
Harrison (known as Lou) lived in the center of almost a century of contemporary American composers including Charles Ives – whom he knew and advocated – as well as Henry Cowell, John Cage, Virgil Thomson, Carl Ruggles, Arnold Schoenberg and John Adams.
Consistently kind, sunny and genteel, the composer was beloved by all. His eccentricities – such as his mastery of American Sign Language, Mandarin and Esperanto – bordered on genius. He was a popular teacher at Mills College, San Jose State University and Cabrillo College, where the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music was born.
Born in Portland, Ore. in 1917, he lived in Northern California and Los Angeles before settling in Aptos, his home until his death in 2003.
Stress from working in New York after World War II led to a nervous breakdown, and on Cage's advice he recovered while teaching in Black Mountain College, N.C. In that quiet setting, he developed his interest in Asian music, which influenced his work for years to come.
Harrison and his life partner Bill Colvig made wondrous newfangled musical instruments. They performed and taught workshops, while Harrison kept on composing.
Harrison had a special connection with the Javanese gamelan orchestra, virtually unknown in the U.S. before he featured gong instruments in dozens of his compositions.
Among his best-known works are four symphonies; Concerto for Violin with Percussion Orchestra; Organ Concerto with Percussion; Double Concerto for violin, cello and gamelan; Piano Concerto for a specially tuned piano; works for Keith Jarrett; and Concerto for Piano and Javanese Gamelan.
IF YOU GO
Lou Harrison: A World of Music
Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., San Francisco
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Tickets: $25 to $125
Contact: (760) 366-4712, www.harrisondocumentary.com
Note: A reception begins at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday; the movie also opens Friday at the Roxie Theater.