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This BMC Sunday orchestra concert was billed as just two composers. In fact there were three. The third leg of an heroic tripod turned out to be Lucas Richman with a nifty new work for percussion written for Timothy Adams. It wasn't until this concert had ended that I realized that the performances ranked with other weighty subjects – like gravity and democracy.
David Effron opened the program conducting the one hundred and four member student/faculty orchestra in a reading of the Air on the G string (S.1068) of J.S. Bach. This seems innocent enough until you take the piece out of the conventional baroque ensemble and play it with sixty strings. Effron choose a pace slightly slower than common and asked the strings for a velvety, rich sound. The result was flawless, memorable, and enduring. Each phrase was a breath all its own, not too long or short. Orchestra members know Effron is working every single beat in real time and that he also knows where every note should be, so even this very large ensemble is totally focused on him and what he is creating. The result is a better understanding of the composer.
Next came Richman's Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra, "The Healer." Richman, Music Director and Conductor of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, spoke from the stage about creating a major work for percussion and writing specifically for Timothy Adams, "the best percussionist on the planet." He discussed the many therapeutic applications of music including evidence that natural rhythms in sync with the body have been found to enhance and heal the sick. Early on, he asked Adams what came to mind when he thought about the concept of healing. His immediate response was the African log drum – hence the work uses that instrument as its centerpiece.
This is an atmospheric and often driving score using four groups of percussion instruments plus the log drum. Full left is a marimba; to the conductor's immediate left are triangles, tubular bells, and other steel things that whir and zing, glass bells, and crotales played with a bow; center stage is the African log drum; to the conductor's right is a set of congas, tam tams, and a foot-actuated wood block; and full right is an array of cymbals and low drums. It was an impressive collection, expertly stage-managed by the BMC staff. All that stuff wasn't there. Then it was.
The heart of this work is conflict, the constant struggle between rhythms found in the natural order of life vs. the manufactured repetitive sounds as might be found in the city. In the end, the natural patterns win. Timothy Adams is so good you don't know how hard the parts are. He is modest and unaffected, smooth with transitions, and on time – a good skill to have if you're going to be a percussionist – and he has impeccable stick technique with hard or soft sticks or mallets – it doesn't matter. The guy is good.
Which brings us to Mahler and his Symphony No. 1 in D, "The Titan." Effron, conducting without a score or stick, took the orchestra through the four movements directing each phrase, entrance, dynamic and tempo change completely from memory. Whether you like the piece or not has no bearing here. It is impossible to ignore the depth and scope of Effron's artistry, his thirst for excellence, his patience in coaching, and the discipline and leadership he imparts to the musicians.
Now, he's got a few really flaky moves that are hard to define. Last year I asked him about a particular motion – here you move both hands rapidly like wiping a window at shoulder height – and his response was, "I don't do that!" And of course he's probably right, he doesn't make the movement I tried to duplicate. However I have been studying this and other conducting motions and find his real power is not in the conventional arm/hand motions associated with articulating the beat. It's really in his body language. Often he simply stops beating time completely, but if you watch his body move with the phrase, you understand what to expect.
Mahler One is not one of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon, but if David Effron is driving the band, I'll take the ride.