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Percussion Done Well and the NSO's Nearly Quotidian Mandarin

Le Mandarin MerveilleuxBuilding yourself an orchestra, section by section, is the topic of the current run of concerts of the National Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin. It starts with a performance of Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments (the 1920 version), which foreshadows the car-honking works of Adams, Reich, Ravel, Varèse, in all its beautiful cacophony. Varèse’s music, especially, shines through; more notably than any of Debussy’s might, in whose memory the Symphonies found their origin. The first five minutes of this less than a dozen minute-long work have a touch of Le Sacre in their rhythm; it ends with an intonation of its own kind of quirky chorale.

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F. Mendelssohn, Octet, Quintets et al., Hausmusik
Mendelssohn. Child genius. Octet. Yes, to all of the above and little need to add to it. Anyone who hasn’t heard this premature masterwork best atone for this omission asap. (The trusty and budget-friendly Hausmusik recording still stands tall, even if it has gotten some stiff competition recently.) No need to buy the version for string orchestra – which was offered by that part of the NSO that had been unemployed during the Stravinsky – either. Unnecessarily thickening the sound without adding in color or tone, it’s not improving on the original. A “self-indictment for two dozen strings” it wasn't quite – but neither does this octet work well in bloated form. Even better playing (in unison, for example) would not have helped much. The original is perfect. Better not meddle with it.

For freshly composed works of classical music, ‘percussion’ is a favorite instrument. Perhaps because percussion is “cool”? Rock music associations? (Never mind that I’ve always been more reminded of Hard Rock and Metal by a headmoshingly good Bartók string quartet than anything involving mostly percussion…) Whatever the reason for the current flurry of works for percussion and the accompanying pitfalls of anything en vogue (much quantity, little quality), they rarely achieve lift-off.

These lines might serve as a prelude to a modern percussion concerto disaster; alas, they are instead to contrast today’s always met and ‘exceeded’ low expectations with the bristling performance of one of the works that started it all. Carlos Chávez’s Toccata for Percussion. If it is fair to assume that anything following a trend may likely be of low quality, it seems similarly reasonable to suppose that anything that is the source of a trend is good (or must at least have plenty of merit) - and the two earliest percussion-only works support this claim. The first was Edgar Varèse’s Ionisation, the second the above-mentioned Chávez, played by the few members that didn’t get out to play in either the Stravinsky or Mendelssohn.

In three movements, it’s tock-tock in the Allegro, sempre guisto (just percussive elements), pling-plang-boom in the Largo (rhythm instruments with pitch and heavy timpani support). In the Allegro un poco marziale (“un poco marziale” is a joke, right?) it all comes together grandiloquently or grandiosely (one of the two) for a plink-tock-boom-plang-chuck’n’crash percussionist showdown. Cool stuff that has its roots audibly in Antheil and Stravinsky, neither of whom ever wrote for just percussion – but both of whom would at times treat all other instruments as if they were.

Other Reviews:

Daniel Ginsberg, From Many Instruments, A Wholly Glorious NSO (Washington Post, May 12)
All musicians united for Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite - from that deliciously cruel, sardonic, creepy ballet. It’s a Hungarian musical Jambalaya… well, Goulash, I suppose – one where you can fish for your favorite chunks floating in a varyingly opaque sauce. Thankfully, Slatkin and the NSO made the work sound more appetizing than this misguided metaphor. Could have been tighter, crisper, tauter still – but the energy was there and a hint of involvement from conductor and orchestra. Glorious noise and, unlike more recently, a sense of structure and tempi. Slatkin is, maddeningly, seldom more than an expert craftsman. The skillfully assembled Mandarin and his grand finale (what aplomb!) is – next to the Chávez – well worth hearing. Repeat performances take place today, Friday, and tomorrow, Saturday, at 8PM.