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Avner Dorman and Martin Grubinger @ NSO

When was the last time someone composed a concerto for percussion that really caught my fancy? Not Jennifer Higdon (2005); and not Michael Daugherty (1999). Maybe when the percussion concerto becomes a more substantial piece that features a lot of percussion, like Erkki-Sven Tüür's fourth symphony (2002), which is the one I remember most fondly. Everyone seems to have written one: Kalevi Aho (2012), John Mackey (2010), Kevin Puts (2006), Steven Stucky (2003), and many others. Add to the list Frozen in Time, a percussion concerto by Israeli-born composer Avner Dorman, premiered in 2007, just a year after his first percussion concerto, Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!. The piece has been making the rounds, racking up over sixty first performances with various orchestras, most recently the National Symphony Orchestra, where it came to my ears last night.

A percussion concerto is an easy sell, which is a rare commodity in marketing new music. That stack of intriguing instruments and mallets, the balletic movement of the soloist, the power of those instruments to carry over an orchestra, to set the heart racing with their domineering pulse. Dorman's piece has considerable appeal, and it carried most of the audience -- thanks in no small part to the virtuosic performance of soloist Martin Grubinger. If it left me disappointed, it was mostly because it seemed so derivative. It surveys three continents in its three movements, alluding to rhythmic traditions of each one. The first movement, IndoAfrica, is the least transparent, but mostly set to a square pulse with a couple slower interludes. The middle movement, Eurasia -- "the heart of the piece" in the composer's words -- features an extensive vibraphone solo that veers dangerously close to any number of songs in 70s movies (by, say, Burt Bacharach), even doubled at times by wandering cocktail piano. The third movement, The Americas, apes Piazzolla and Bernstein, complete with bluesy saxophone solos, capped at one point by an almost literal quotation of the theme from Peter Gunn by Henry Mancini -- Latin music lite. (For a more sympathetic view, see Jens's review, also of Grubinger, from Munich in 2008.)

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Contemporary percussion staple hits NSO (Washington Post, January 24)
The concerto was surrounded by much more traditional fare, played capably but without much to give me cause to sit up and take notice. Mozart's "Haffner" symphony (D major, K. 385) was light and bubbly, with the cellos and basses (strings whittled down to 10/8/6/4/3, or thereabouts) separated by a vast distance, with Grubinger's battery of percussion instruments already set up between them and conductor Christoph Eschenbach. The interpretation featured some quiet passages, allowing the woodwinds to burble in peace, subtle, not overplayed -- the Andante warm and stately, the Menuetto a little plain, with a portly trio. The very fast finale was too much to keep the fastest notes from getting a little blurry in the strings, perhaps by intention. The NSO had not played Dvořák's ninth symphony since 2007, with Emmanuel Krivine at the podium, and as expected Eschenbach put all sorts of touches on it. This did not add up to anything revelatory, in spite of an extra-nostaglic English horn solo in the second movement and some puissant brass sounds. The tuning of the all-woodwind sections did not always quite lock into place, and there were a couple of misplaced notes in the first movement, but for the most part it was well played. It is such a well-constructed piece that it almost cannot miss its mark, which is why it is so popular with audiences.

This concert repeats on Saturday night.

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