An oxygen tank high
Animas Music Festival surprises again


by Judith Reynolds

Sunday night the stage at the Community Concert Hall will look like a junkyard. Garbage cans, flower pots, baseball bats and a 375-pound rack swaying with oxygen tanks will be dispersed among ho-hum, regular musical instruments. John Pennington has carefully assembled (and tuned) all these instruments for the opening concert of the 13th annual Animas Music Festival.

“I doubt that anyone has ever seen a concert stage that will look like this,” Pennington said. He’s artistic director of the festival, the pulse, heartbeat and muscle behind the metal. Dedicated to bringing fresh and unusual concerts to the Four Corners each spring, Pennington is also professor of music at Fort Lewis College. He’s a composer, conductor, performer, author and educator.

Pennington’s willing to bet area music lovers also have never heard anything like “La Koro Sutro,” the major work on the program.

Composed by Lou Harrison in the early 1970s, “La Koro Sutro” will be the climax of a concert dedicated to “world music.” (A quick disclaimer: I’m participating).

Sung in Esperanto, “La Koro Sutro” translates as “The Heart Sutra,” referring to the Buddhist heart of divine wisdom. Harrison chose Esperanto largely because it suited the theme, and its proponents believed a universal language might contribute to world peace. Esperanto never achieved wide acceptance, but it served the composer’s expressive purposes perfectly.

Organized into eight movements, “La Koro Sutro” combines full chorus, harp, organ and gamelan orchestra, an assemblage of traditional and outrageously nontraditional instruments.

Pennington’s efforts (and originally Harrison’s) derive from the creative tradition of Indonesian gamelan music. Gamelan is a musical ensemble that consists of wind, string, and percussion instruments. The collection may include flutes, drums and ordinary instruments, but it’s more likely to include found and homemade objects. It all began in a village and is as far away from an urban concert hall as a grass hat from a Homburg.

In the 1960s, Harrison became fascinated with gamelan music, its beauty, complexity and expressiveness. A fellow composer, Ned Rorem, said that Harrison was “one of the first American composers to successfully create a workable marriage between Eastern and Western forms.”

Harrison dedicated his life to exploring all kinds of music and all kinds of instruments. Enormously prolific, he wrote a Mass, several symphonies, concertos, orchestral suites, chamber pieces, an opera, and choral works as well as ballet, theater and film scores. He died three years ago at age 89, en route to a conference featuring his compositions.

“I played for him in 1991,” Pennington said. “It was a moving experience. And in 2003, when I heard about his death, I decided to play more of his music. I’ve always wanted to do ‘La Koro Sutro.’ Harrison had very specific diagrams with dimensions for many of the instruments. And we’ve experienced all kinds of serendipity finding or making them.”

To fill out the orchestra, Pennington has gone on shopping/hunting trips to find the right clink and rumble. With a tuning fork in hand, he has been seen strolling through the aisles of Kroeger’s, Home Depot and Wal-Mart listening to pitches or the tell-tale “ring” of a rice bowl.

In addition to Choral Conductor Linda Mack, another colleague in arms has been Richard Cooke. “Richard played this piece with Lou Harrison in the 1970s,” Pennington said.

A musician and former member of the Paul Winter Consort, Cooke now lives in the Durango area. He founded Freenotes, a company that makes unusual instruments, many for outdoor use, and was profiled in the March 16 issue of the Durango Telegraph.

“Richard made all of the pitched metalophones,” Pennington said. “Two years ago I heard them at his home. Since then, Richard has been very involved. He has a good sense of how the piece should be played. We’re doing everything possible to replicate the composer’s original intention. It’s a very expressive and powerful work.”

The first half of the program features the Durango Choral Society performing a Shaker entrance tune. The Durango Women’s Choir will sing three works including a Bernstein selection with tenor soloist Andreas Tischhauser, and the Woodwork Percussion Ensemble will play contemporary works, one featuring Pennington as xylophone soloist.

For the second festival concert, Fri., May 26, Pennington will join Cyprian Consiglio to celebrate their new CD, “Compassionate and Wise.” Special guests include violinist Mikylah Myers-McTeer and bassist Bryan Kuban. A free Rotary Park concert at 1 p.m. Mon., May 29, will feature the Woodwork Percussion Ensemble.

The final concert, Fri., June 2, presents Kurt Weill’s “Magic Night.” The Animas Chamber Players will be joined by soprano Gemma Kavanagh. Through a special grant, Pennington was able to secure the American rights to premiere this work.

For Pennington and company, the 13th annual festival looks like a lucky number. •