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It was with some amazement that we found Page Auditorium only about two thirds full to hear world-class percussionist Evelyn Glennie in recital with pianist Philip Smith. Glennie is such a brilliant musician that even if you aren't thrilled with a program of contemporary music for banging instruments, to experience this phenomenon is not to be missed. Why all contemporary music? Glennie, who plays the entire range of formally designated percussion instruments - and just about anything else she can strike - has created a classical musical genre, having as of this date commissioned herself or had commissioned for her 51 concertos, 56 recital pieces, 17 concert pieces and 2 percussion ensemble works. Few of the composers are known to the general classical concert-going audience, especially since many of them come or borrow from the world of jazz, rock and media entertainment, whose music language they frequently employ in their compositions.
Glennie's recital was a sampler of eight works, each one composed for a different combination of percussion instruments, which filled Page's stage in small groups. An important part of Glennie's performance is visual. Despite the pragmatic array of instruments that allows her to easily work each ensemble, Glennie usually has to dash around the stage to access another set of instruments during the course of a piece, her motion that of a dancer. Not only is she fascinating to watch as her sticks, mallets or hands fly over snare drum, marimba or bongo, but she also makes effective use of lighting to enhance the mood of each piece.
The recital opened with "Fluctus" by Nebojsa Zivkovic, a short piece for solo marimba, involving both rapid mallet work and pianissimo legato playing, clearly a warm-up and teaser for what was to come. It was followed by Drum Dances by John Psathas, four dance movements for different instrumental groups with a challenging piano accompaniment.
"Rhythmic Caprice" by Leigh Howard Stevens, another work for solo marimba, brought out the variety of sounds that can be produced on the instrument by using different mallets, striking the bars in different places and using different parts of the mallets.
But the most interesting work on the first half of the program was "Darkness to Light" by David C. Heath. This work, an "emotional journey from depression to joy," covers the history of Western music from John Cage to Ravel - in reverse. It began with prepared piano, waterfone and screeched tam-tam plus assorted toys and noisemakers of all types, strewn on the floor at the front of the stage where Glennie scrabbled around on all fours, apparently improvising. After a virtuoso performance on the drum kit, the music suddenly became a quiet duet for vibraphone and piano, in places utilizing the sonorities and harmonic language of Debussy and Ravel.
The second half of the program featured works for cymbals, marimba and solo snare drum. "Prim" by Askell Masson contained one of the most amazing examples of rhythmic and timing control we have ever witnessed, beginning with battery of all the possible permutations and combinations of sounds one can make with a snare drum. But the focus of the piece was a cadenza, lasting several minutes in which Glennie began striking the drum at even one-second intervals, very gradually and completely smoothly speeding up the tempo and dynamics to a frantic roll, then bringing the time intervals slowly back down again to a slow pianissimo - all with a single spot shining on the tips of the drumsticks. It sounds boring but it was filled with tension. You had to be there.
The interplay between percussion and piano - in itself also a percussion instrument - can be amusing, even outright funny, and nowhere more so than in Stewart Wallace's "The Cheese and the Worm," inspired by a novel with that name by Carlo Ginsburg. The novel describes a 16th century miller, a faithful believer in the old semi-pagan religion. He enjoys expounding on his take on the story of creation, which gets him burned at the stake by the Inquisition for heresy. The music, like an argument between the two performers, bounced back and forth, with each trying to have the last word.
"Los Destellos de la Resonancia" by Roberto Sierra exploited the sounds of piano and all kinds of cymbal, from crash to finger cymbals, and striking implements imaginable, including a violin bow.
The final work on the program was a piano reduction of "Prism Rhapsody" for Marimba and Orchestra by Keiko Abe. A marimba virtuoso in her own right, Abe based the Rhapsody on a themes from an earlier marimba solo. The work again showcased Glennie's astounding technique, as well as the wonderful interaction between her and Smith.
It is difficult to capture in writing the music in a Glennie recital. Even most of us trained as musicians are not sufficiently conversant with the complex of rhythms and polyrhythms that make up these pieces to apprehend their subtleties at first hearing, much less speak about them analytically. Nor is this kind of sensitivity necessary. Glennie's performances are spectacles, somewhere between a classical performance and a rock concert. Movement, lighting, even the arrangement of probably over a hundred separate instruments on stage, not to mention Glennie's sheer virtuosity all add to the captivating effect. She has recorded by now 17 CDs and won two Grammies. However, in an art where the visual component is an integral part of the performance, it is a pity she has not made a DVD to demonstrate her virtuosity. Given the enormous variety of the music and on this program, a video of this American tour would be most welcome.