For centuries, people all over the world have pounded on percussion instruments to accompany music, dance and ritual. Yet percussion did not emerge as a vital musical entity until 1934 when Edgard Varese’s Ionization, one of the first compositions for percussion ensemble, premiered at Carnegie Hall under the baton of Nicolas Slominsky, to whom it was dedicated. One critic likened the performance to “a sock in the jaw.”
They didn’t play Varese Tuesday night, but the Delaware Symphony Orchestra percussionists William Kerrigan, Thomas Blanchard and William Wozniak did offer a sonically and visually captivating program that offered a fantastic — and flawless — insight into the creativity and versatility of this powerful section of the orchestra. “Percussion Rules,” the third concert in the DSO’s chamber series, presented gems of the repertoire that had a little something for every taste and tilt: classical, avant garde, ragtime as well as a swig of Latin.
The evening kicked off with Trio per uno (1999) by Serbian composer Nebojsa Zivkovic. This 20-minute work opened with a movement the composer aptly describes as a “wild archaic ritual.” This section had the three players gathered around a flat bass drum beating it obsessively with timbale sticks. This nervous pulsing on the bass drum was punctuated with unison thwacks from the pair of bongs and china-gongs allotted each player. Kerrigan, Blanchard and Wozniak offered a visceral and virtuosic performance that tapped an elemental strain of the human psyche.
By contrast, the slow middle movement presented a slow, contemplative melody that served as a respite before the volcanic close: sheer speed and energy replete with guttural, primordial shouts.
Stubernic (2000) by Mark Ford offered the trio another opportunity to showcase its prowess on a single instrument, this time the marimba. The Latin-inspired piece takes its name from Stefan and Mary K. Stuber, the composer’s former classmates who traveled extensively throughout Guatemala and Nicaragua. Moving around the instrument in circular motion — as if playing musical chairs — the three players dazzled the audience with their breakneck speed and tightly controlled ensemble work.
DSO pianist Lura Johnson joined the percussionists in a performance of John Cage’s Amores (1943), a four movement work featuring prepared piano. The composer described the work as “an attempt to express in combination the erotic and the tranquil, two of the permanent emotions of the Indian tradition.”
Prior to the performance, Johnson explained how she’d gone to Home Depot earlier that day to purchase the stipulated in the score, including nine screws, eight bolts, two nuts and three strips of rubber. Depending on what is applied to its strings and where, the piano can produce a limitless variety of pitched and unpitched sounds, becoming a miniature percussion orchestra all by itself
Johnson soloed in the two outer movements and conducted the inner two which were for percussion alone. The first of the two inner movements featured nine tom-toms and a pod rattle which provided contrast with its periodic nervous rustling. The second scored for seven wood blocks was a waltz-like affair.
DSO principal flutist Kimberly Reighley soloed in An Idyll for the Misbegotten (1986) by George Crumb, a past winner of the DSO’s A.I. duPont Composer’s Award. The piece takes the melancholy flute solo of Debussy’s Syrinx and surrounds it with three rumbling drums. The composer felt that the combination of flute and drums best evoked “the voice of nature.” Crumb further stated that his idyll “should be heard from afar, over a lake, on a moonlight evening in August.”
Reighley supplied a superb solo, playing lines that fluttered, dipped and soared over a bass drum that evoked the sound of rolling, distant thunder. A call-and-response from the other two percussionists made it feel as if the impending storm had broken the skies wide open,
Each half of the program closed with a performance of a traditional Guatemalan song, Lain Nebaj and Manzanilla, both of which evoked the warmth of the tropics on this mild spring evening.
With the audience on its feet, the trio offered one last selection. Teaming once again with pianist Lura Johnson, they gave a rollicking rendition of George Hamilton Green’s xylophone rag Log Cabin Blues, with Kerrigan on xylophone and Wozniak on the drum set. Blanchard did the honors as sound effects man.