Percussion concertos I have heard have tended to be more interesting as "theatre pieces" than as pure music. I still break into a cold sweat when I recall the EMF premiere of a piece by a composer with the understated nickname, "The Junkman." In addition to a real kitchen sink and larder of bottles, that work included car parts!
The place of honor of the final concert by the North Carolina School of the Arts Symphony Orchestra, given in the Stevens Center on May 21, was Joseph Schwantner's Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra (1994). Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its 150th anniversary, it has been taken up by a large number of orchestras, regional and otherwise, many of them employing Evelyn Glennie as soloist (as in Charlotte last October and in May 2000 with the NC Symphony). The Winston-Salem performance was never less than interesting, and much of the music was immediately attractive.
Music Director Serge Zehnacker's soloist was Colin Tribby, presently pursuing a Bachelor of Music degree at the NCSA. He is currently the principal timpanist of the Salisbury Symphony and a percussionist with the Winston-Salem Symphony, and he is also a jazz drummer with several combos and big bands in this state. While a high school student at the NCSA, he studied with J. Massie Johnson. He moved to New York and studied for a time at Juilliard before returning to the NCSA. In the fall of 2004 he will begin work for a Master of Music degree at the Eastman School of Music under the tutelage of John H. Beck. He certainly had an enthusiastic fan base among the NCSA students that packed the auditorium.
The Schwantner Concerto is in the traditional three movements, fast, slow and fast. The first, marked ominously "con forza," began with Tribby playing an array of percussion, assorted drums, xylophone, etc. at the back of the stage. After an initial section of increasing loudness matched with slashing strings and brazen brass, there was a subtle interlude with refined and soft percussion set against sustained long notes from the strings at extremely low dynamic levels. More vigorous music resumed before the end, and the other four percussionists often played xylophones or bells of one sort or another. Parts of this movement suggested the sound world of the last movement of Holst's The Planets . The most rewarding music was in the very long slow movement, which kept Tribby busy at the front of the stage with a vibraphone, an assortment of temple and cow bells, cymbals, etc. These were played with various sticks, whisks, and a violin bow. One item was a flat brass disc that was lowered into a bucket of water, its pitch changing depending upon the depth of the immersion. Against this was a delicate background of very beautifully scored music for all the sections except the other percussionists. The last movement found Tribby among the other percussionists at the rear of the stage; from time to time his colleagues joined in, playing xylophones. There was an extended cadenza for Tribby. Some of the scoring for ominous sounding horns and other brass seemed very close to some of the score for "Mars" from The Planets . The audience roared its approval at the end and Tribby was recalled half a dozen times. Parts of the concerto go on too long, and the composer ought to make judicious cuts, but this type of work benefits greatly from seeing and hearing it live or on DVD. Sound alone shortchanges the work.
Two great 20th-century American showpieces ended the concert, and the audience was elated with the vigorous and idiomatic performances. Zehnacker brought out all the sass and irony in Bernstein's effervescent Overture to Candide, a wonderful potpourri of tunes and passages from the opera. Tight ensemble and precise transitions were the order of the day. The splashy opening fanfare and rollicking first section were a hoot. The low strings introduced the lyrical love theme for Candide and Cunegonde, "Oh, Happy We." The Rossini-like crescendo and dashing coda over pulsing brass and percussion echoed Cunegonde's jewel song, "Glitter and Be Gay."
I could not see them but it sounded like period taxi horns were used in Gershwin's jazzy "An American in Paris." Zehnacker 's phrasing was perfect, and the students played the piece for all it is worth, which is a great deal. Really fine solo work was turned in by bass clarinetist Johnathan C. Robinson, English horn player Anna Lodico, trumpeter Joey Ruggero and Concertmistress Theodora Dimitrova. The standard of orchestral playing was so high in this and the other two works that no allowance was needed for the fact that all the players are students. It was a fully professional effort.