The percussion concerto that ‘couldn’t be done’

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer based in Bordeaux. He contributes music commentary to Facts & Arts, International New York Times, Boston Musical Intelligencer, Open Letters Monthly and Clavier Companion, among others. He is a former board member of the London International Piano Competition. 23.12.2013

Dame Evelyn Glennie works wonders with her mallets, hammers and her bare hands in a new CD of John Corigliano’s percussion concerto – a piece that he initially hesitated to undertake for fear that it couldn’t be done. At least not to his exacting standards. Dame Evelyn helps make it happen.

“My only reaction was horror,” he recalls, upon receiving the invitation to compose what became the other-worldly three-movement “Conjurer” concerto (Naxos 5.559757).  “All I could see were problems.”

Percussion, he believed, can be “wonderful” if its role is limited to coloring orchestral texture or to accent sonorities. But his view of other attempts at concertos in which percussion is the main focus is that they can be “terrible”.  The aural identity of the player “is lost among the myriad bangs, crashes, and splashes of the percussion arsenal”, he writes in his very frank liner notes.

Corigliano and Dame Evelyn strive in this recording to break new ground and ensure that the melodic interest rests not with the orchestra but with the “arsenal” of percussion instruments.

This recording is a smooth, refreshing and highly musical combination of melodic drums, marimba, vibraphone, bells and other instruments – plus the lush strings of the Albany Symphony --  that is almost as interesting to watch as to hear.

An exhilarating glimpse of Dame Evelyn in action, dressed in blue jeans in this rehearsal, can be seen here with a different orchestra:

One alert commentator noticed that a violinist was so far into her athletic performance that he whipped out his pocket video device at 1:30 to capture her whacking, hopping and dancing – perhaps also the music she was making.

The conjuring in this piece is the percussionist’s ability to draw music from wood, metal and skin, materials that each get a cadenza and a movement in the concerto. At the end of 36 minutes, the listener is breathless with excitement. 

Also on this CD is Corigliano’s “Vocalise,” a combination of Hila Plitmann’s wordless but rich soprano with orchestral and electronic accompaniment. This piece was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to join four others at the turn of the century. Each was to convey a message for the new millenium. Corigliano was the boldest. His message: “It was time for the world of classical music to come to terms with the worlds of amplification and electronic  manipulation.”

He was aware the amplification is a turnoff to many concertgoers, who head for the exit rather than endure ”shrieks and howls” that they imagine are coming next.  Corigliano achieves his goal, however. “I wanted to write a piece that was beautiful to hear,” he says in his notes, and this ethereal is a jewel of musicality.

Again it is performed by the Albany symphony under David Alan Miller with electronics produced and performed by Mark Borchle.

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