Dame Evelyn Glennie, the world-class virtuosa of anything percussive, made time stand still for the packed crowd at the Stevens Center. We held our collective breath for most of the half-hour-long tour de force that is Joseph Schwantner’s Concerto for Percussion, while Dame Evelyn dashed from tom-tom to bass drum to marimba to cymbal and again to bass drum, all the while changing beaters (drum sticks) and mallets. This reviewer has forgotten most of the music because what commanded the attention was the speed, precision and absolute synchronization of the soloist with the orchestra. It was a most amazing spectacle! The Winston-Salem Symphony and its buoyant young maestro, Robert Moody, are to be congratulated both for innovative programming and a spectacular second half of the concert. The concert will be repeated on Tuesday night, February 12 at 7:30 PM.
The concerto is formatted in the traditional three movements, but there ends tradition! Probably many other traditional features are present, but they occur more as visual gestures (the return to the bass drum signaling what is probably the recapitulation in the first movement) than as thematic or melodic elements. Surely with repeated hearing and study many more structural elements might be discovered, but for the casual music-lover they remain obscure.
For the outer movements, the soloist and her instruments were placed on a raised platform at the back of the over-crowded stage, between the timpani on the audience’s right and a massive orchestral percussion zone which filled the rest of the back half of the stage, center and left. The winds and strings were squeezed into a wedge which opened to the right because the usual violin section had been displaced by several dozen drums, gongs, cymbals and cowbells (perched on their sides), more than an alpine herd might normally use. Whereas the first movement (Con forza) featured the entire spectrum of percussion on the stage (played by half a dozen Symphony players as well as the soloist) over long-held tones in strings and winds, the closing movement (Ritmico con brio) featured the entire orchestra in mixed 5/8 and 7/8 meter, leading to an eruption of the soloist into an improvised cadenza. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the exceptional skill of Dame Glennie on the marimba (amplified) and the gorgeous tone of her maracas.
The second movement, Misterioso, was a wondrous wash of softer sustained sounds played at the front of the stage. Crotales, tiny, finely milled rather thickish cymbals, usually struck with a metal rod, were played with a double bass bow, creating eerie sustained high pitches, nowadays associated with electronic sounds. A gong was struck repeatedly while being lowered into a drum of water warping the sound: “beem, bim, bem, behm, bam, bahm, baum, bohm, boum …” and back as the gong was lifted out of the water. A similar spectrum was provoked from a flexible rod struck repeatedly while shortening the distance from the hand to the striker — like a schoolboy rapping an ever moving pencil against the edge of the desk. When Dame Evelyn turned to the dulcet chromatically tuned cowbells, her back to the audience, her movements from one to the next recalled an exquisite choreography.
The Symphony management had lit the stage in colors appropriate to the character of the piece and the clothes worn by the soloist. Dame Evelyn was dressed in an amber and red brocade tunic set off by black leather pants adorned with amber and red trim. The same colors were shone on the instruments in the part of the stage used for that movement, while the rest of the stage was bathed in a teal light. During the concerto, which occupied the entire second half of the concert, the musicians had individual lamps on their music, the overhead lighting dimmed to a minimum. Bravo to the stage crew!
The first half of the concert was somewhat less successful although equally ambitious. Till Eulenspiegel by Richard Strauss started the concert with whimsy and color, unfortunately marred by less than perfect playing by several principals. A narrative describing the pranks of Till Eulenspeigel, projected above the orchestra, elicited occasional titters from the audience which was probably concentrating more on the story than the sound. Special kudos offered for the extraordinary playing of the Eb clarinet embodying Till.
Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), by Arnold Schönberg, is an ultra-romantic work, originally written for six string soloists, but rewritten by Schönberg many years later for large string orchestra. For this program a hybrid of the two original versions was presented, with mixed success. This piece is extremely difficult for musicians to play, one reason it is not heard as often as one might hope. Not only is it difficult technically, but to grow and built and lead to the climax takes much patience, reflection and forethought. Maestro Moody provided insightful leadership and guidance, but problems of uniform intonation cropped up frequently, especially in the upper register of the violins. Yet it was a pleasure to hear the solo natures of the new principal and assistant principal violas! The work ended in a soft shimmer and a deep sense of accomplishment, of transfiguration.