Only six players constituted the Palm Beach Symphony on Feb. 8, in a case of staffing to suit the venue: the concert was in the acoustically ripe room housing Henry Flagler’s personal railway carriage. About 500 people attended.
Moving from the rear of the orchestra where they always play, the daunting six percussionists were front and center and made up in volume what they lacked in numbers. It was also a subtle way of introducing this audience to some new music; conductor Ramón Tebar’s stated mission, whose choices so far this season have been on point.
Feel the Rhythm percussionists were Adolfo Vidal, a pianist from Venezuela; Jure Rozman, piano, from Slovenia; Gary Mayone, Rick Urban, Mark Schubert and Karlyn Vina, percussionists who play in the Palm Beach Symphony and Florida Grand Opera orchestra. Dancer Nina Martin, an adjunct professor at Miami Dade College, provided the pantomime.
Believe it or not, 55 percussion devices were listed in the program, ranging from tin cans to vibraphones. Not all of them were used, however.
First came Ravel’s familiar Le Tombeau de Couperin, with four of its six movements arranged by Hungarian composer Aurel Hollo for four mallet instruments — two vibraphones, a marimba and glockenspiel. Ravel started to write this in 1914 but World War I service as a volunteer ambulance driver put it on hold. It was intended as an hommage to Francois Couperin, King Louis XIV’s harpsichordist. Instead, Ravel dedicated its six movements to friends killed in the war.
“Prelude,” in its opening fluid melody, has the larger vibraphone dominant as the four players made mellow, but muddy sounds playing together in this ripe acoustic space. It took time to adjust one’s ears to this wholly percussive treatment of such lovely and familiar music. “Forlane” has more individual playing. The magic of Ravel becomes more apparent in the peacefulness of his music.
Third, the “Menuet,” is stately, with a three beat pulse, the smaller vibraphone subtly plays some lovely rushing upward scales. A sweeter sound from all four percussionists begins to emanate round the room. They have found the right pitch to match its acoustic. Last, the “Rigaudon” has fast outer sections surrounding a reflective melody. Its opening is lively, but I felt it was too hurried and consequently the sound was muddy again, especially when all four instruments played together. The quieter passages however were beautifully conveyed.
Next came Bartok’s Sonata for 2 Pianos and Percussion — timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, snare drum, tam-tam and xylophone — written in 1937 during his most intensive phase of composition from 1937 to 1940. The sonata has three movements: The first begins with soft piano music, almost ghostly, which introduces the timpani. The two pianos play continuous climbing scales, stopped by heavy timpani. The tempo becomes very fast as a snare drum roll exaggerates the music, bringing it to an excellent climax.
The second movement begins with slow piano pieces and the sound of a large gong. The mood is peaceful. Eventually it gets livelier, with repeated trills from the first piano as the other piano accompanies with continuous low scales. The occasional xylophone note punctures the mood as masterful timpani playing accompanies surprising discordant piano duets.
The final movement begins with a slow march on the snare drum and a brilliantly exploratory piano duet. Each pianist plays deliberate smashed chords and lots of alternate individual notes discordantly: it comes across as hauntingly beautiful music as both pianists tackle continuous whirlpool sounds on each piano in the keyboard’s center. A snare drum beats time, symbols clash, and four exciting piano chords bring it to a close.
It’s exceptional music, but hard to take if you’re unitiated. A lukewarm reception signaled intermission, and empty seats signaled the disapproval of some listeners.
The second half of the program was even more avant-garde, with two pieces composed in this century. First came Fractalia, by Owen Condon, written in 2011 for marimbas and drums. The title comes from the Latin fractus, meaning broken. So this is a sonic celebration of fractals, geometric shapes. Two players on one marimba make sweet sounds. Crashing drums — distributed among the players in four places — interrupt annoyingly. The marimbas return with otherworldly sonic sounds of the spheres. It is lovely music at times. But a bothersome snare drum interjects with a thunder clap from nowhere to end it.
David Maslanka’s This Is the World was next, scored for two pianos, orchestra bells, vibraphone, crotales, marimba, suspended cymbal, chimes, metal wind chimes, a tam-tam, snare, and bass drum. Written in 2009 and inspired by Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks, its duration was set as 50 minutes. More seats emptied. A pity, in a supplemental program, it had been reduced to a quarter of that time. We heard just two movements from This Is the World.
In the first, “Nighthawks,” Maslanka describes how the painter’s use of abstract forms almost parallels his own take on the picture through the way he writes his music. A gong opens with running arpeggios on one piano. A striking, lovely tune appears on the second piano. It is deliberate, almost Chopinesque in character. Cymbals are brushed as this tune is repeated.
The arpeggios continue. The second piano picks out at least 10 spaced chords, very meaningfully. It’s fascinating how it all seems to comes together. Then both pianos play continual runs accompanied by snare drum and vibraphone. The music suddenly descends into wildly discordant but very exciting forms. Eventually the haunting music from the beginning returns.
Second came “Let It Be.” Maslanka based it on a chorale melody — Lord, Do Not Be Angry With Me — by J.S. Bach. It is quite short, with lots of bells and ear-shattering crescendos which all die away in the end. As a distraction, the lovely mime Nina Martin, dressed in a black “siren suit” with a disappointing black backdrop and poor lighting, did her best to convey a story to Maslanka’s music, miming her gestures and facial expressions gracefully.
Last came John Cage’s Third Construction, written in 1941. It uses 18 of the 55 percussion instruments mentioned above, including rattles, bass drum, snare drum, tin cans, claves, cowbells, friction drum (for a lion’s roar), cymbals, ratchet, teponaxtle (Mexican slit drum), quijades (donkey jawbone with rattling teeth), cricket caller and one wind instrument — a conch shell.
Cage’s score is organized into 24 sections of 24 measures each. The players rotate through a series of proportional rhythms, rather like bell ringers going though different changes. “A cohesion emerges that elevates percussive sounds into the realm of music,” said Cage. No tunes at first emerge but the sounds made are wonderful. I felt Cage’s rhythms were strongly influenced by native Caribbean Mardi Gras and Carnival traditions. The conch rasps out an interjectory note from time to time. The rhythms are catching, hypnotic and loud, making one want to get up and dance.
As the percussion gets louder and louder, one could honestly say it almost makes its own music at the end — mission accomplished, Mr. Cage. This was met by a great roar of approval by those remaining.
In conclusion I’d like to say I have always admired how orchestral percussionists move about so quietly, without causing a distraction or drawing attention to themselves. They can play an astonishing range of instruments and invariably hold the most degrees in music than their colleagues, as evidenced by these six wonderful artists.