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Review: Schwantner's Percussion Concerto

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Guest conductor Hans Graf
  • Guest conductor Hans Graf

Hilbert Circle Theatre; Nov. 11-12

Joseph Schwantner, 68, has always been a far better than average contemporary composer. In the early 1980s, I attended Terre Haute's ISU Contemporary Music Festival, and heard two works of his played by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra which I still remember: New Morning for the World: "Daybreak of Freedom," with a text by Martin Luther King Jr., and From a Dark Millennium, a purely orchestral work which featured ominous drums and enchanting harmonies accompanying some player vocalise.

On Friday, under guest conductor Hans Graf, the ISO gave us the performance debut of a brand new work, Schwantner's three-movement Percussion Concerto II - a splendidly crafted composition from start to finish. As we've experienced with two or three percussion concertos in the previous decade, this one followed the formula of featuring a very large percussion battery, mostly on an extended stage apron in front of everybody. It differed, however, in using the orchestra's own four percussionists rather than engaging an outsider: principal Braham Denbar, veteran Paul Berns, Craig Hetrick and timpanist Jack Brennan.

This has, by far, been the best new percussion concerto I've heard. Schwantner plays by the rules of good composition in allowing all his resources to be heard when they have something to say. Though the various pounding instruments -- drums of all sizes, including brake drums and plastic buckets -- make the most noise, the strings, winds, brass and horns all shine forth when they are meant to. There are particularly affecting displays by Rebecca Price Arrensen's piccolo, done masterfully--along with the English horn and bass clarinet. In the second movement, the mallet instruments dominate with xylophone, marimbas, vibraphone and various chimes, bells and a waterphone which sounds when tilted, not struck.

While the three movements display, to a degree, the characteristic loud-soft-loud structure, the third movement becomes a jam session for three inverted plastic buckets, with our three principals each taking his turn pounding, with all sitting on their "instruments." Our timpanist got in a few licks as well. Interestingly the mezzanine audience leaned forward en masse to better see the bucket brigade, located farthest front on the apron extension. Graf and company got a standing ovation which was borderline explosive, with Schwantner on stage to share in the accolades.

Graf began with a surprisingly tonal, Romantic work of that notorious serialist, Anton Webern: Im Sommerwind, Idyll for Orchestra, written in 1904 when the composer was 19. Its key signature appeared to be D major, and could have been the harbinger of a unique post-Romantic style, had Webern not come under the influence of Arnold Schoenberg. Though his inspiration was hardly first-rate, he excelled in bringing out solo instruments in a manner differing from the concurrent symphony-writing Mahler, yet resembling the latter in other ways.

The big final work, Strauss's long, occasionally bombastic tone poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life, 1898), Op. 40, seemed a bit anticlimactic after the Schwantner experience, though Graf gave its six continuous sections a well conceived forward thrust. In section three, "The Hero's Companion," concertmaster Zach de Pue maintained his high playing caliber in the extensive solo violin writing. However, in section four, "The Hero's Battlefield," some of the textures were muddy, with a lack of complete unanimity among the ensembles. This reading was nowhere near the high level of former ISO music director Mario Venzago's Heldenleben of Sept. 2006.

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