Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center shines brightly in percussion program

February 07, 2015
By Tim Sawyier
CCMSLC percussionists perform Steve Reich's "Drumming" Thursday night at the Harris Theater in Chicago. File photo:

CMSLC percussionists performed Thursday night at the Harris Theater.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center returned to the Harris Theater Thursday night in a concert simply titled “Drumming.” The evening opened with an exclamation point in the form of the opening movement—“Meccanico”—from Serbian-born composer Nebojša Jovan Živković’s Trio per uno. The six-minute selection, which the composer suggests “might represent a wild archaic cult ritual,” finds three percussionists standing around a flat bass drum, obsessively beating on it with timbale sticks. The mood from the outset is primeval, as nervous pulsing on the bass drum is punctuated with precision unison thwacks from the pair of bongos and china-gongs allotted to each player. The three performers—Ian David Rosenbaum, Ayano Kataoka, and Christopher Froh—offered a visceral, elemental performance that tapped an ancient strain of the human psyche.

Following the Živković, Froh took the stage by himself for the three minutes of Dominic Murcott’s solo percussion arrangement of Conlon Nancarrow’s Piece for Tape. Opening in a style  similar to the previous work, the highlight of this breakneck performance was a crazed, manic interlude for woodblocks, which Froh delivered in a blurred haze of mallet strikes.

The evening continued with what could easily have been a scene from the Broadway hit STOMP! as Froh’s two colleagues rejoined him for Thierry de Mey’s 1987 Musique de tables. Seated shoulder-to-shoulder at a generic table, the three performers elicited a complete sonic landscape from the unassuming piece of furniture, with various taps, knocks, pats, and slides on its surface exploiting the unexpected timbral possibilities of an everyday flat surface. Amusingly choreographed page-turns added some comic relief, and further evoked the aforementioned Broadway phenomenon.

John Cage’s somber, hypnotic In a Landscape followed the light-hearted de Mey work, and was mesmerizingly executed by Rosenbaum in his own transcription for solo marimba. The product of Cage’s 1948 collaboration with choreographer Merce Cunningham at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, the piece is a modal meditation with minimal yet recurring melodic material atop slowly undulating harmonies. Rosenbaum’s reading was entrancing and sensitive, his choice of marimba ideal for the work’s placid, introspective quality.

The full trio then presented Toru Takemitsu’s Rain Tree. Takemitsu’s music is known for its atmospheric idiom, yet Rain Tree suffers from a lack of structure and differentiation. While exotic, atonal sonorities from marimba and vibraphone did create an eerie, alien atmosphere, and chimes from crotales effectively evoked raindrops, the piece itself is too formless and meandering to sustain its twelve-minute duration.

The percussion trio became a quartet in the last work of the first half, joined by Victor Caccese for Steve Reich’s Drumming: Part 1. This work is the apotheosis of Reich’s experiments with “phasing,” a process he developed where at least two identical instruments begin playing in unison, then gradually become increasingly unsynchronized. (The effect is like waiting at a stoplight, watching the turn signals of cars in front you—at one moment they appear to be blinking at a uniform rate, but gradually fall out of sync with each other.) The four percussionists, playing with mallets on eight pitched bongos, adroitly executed the piece, which develops from a single basic rhythmic germ. Gradually, as the phasing process developed and accelerated, different (poly)rhythms almost emerged and receded almost magically from a precisely controlled cacophony and mirage of mallets.

After the heady originality of the first half, even Bela Bartók’s 1937 Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion  sounded a bit tame by comparison.  The first movement’s slow introduction had a lugubrious, Transylvanian murkiness, and or which Chamber Music Society co-artistic director Wu Han and pillar member Gilbert Kalish joined Froh and Rosenbaum, bringing virtuosic vigor to the ensuing violent allegro. The desiccated, schizoid slow movement had the paranoid quality one might justifiably expect from a composer living with propinquity to Hitler’s Germany, and featured sensitive commentaries from the two percussionists. The closing allegro was highlighted by sonorously piercing xylophone solos from Froh, and the movement’s coda, which evaporates to an ethereal pianissimo, ended the evening on a shimmering note.

The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center returns to the Harris Theater 7:30 p.m. March 2 with music of Mahler, Schumann, and Brahms.–romantic-piano

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