Monday, 18 March 2013

THE POWER OF 5 / Conservatory Percussion Ensemble / Review

Conservatory Percussion Ensemble
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory Concert Hall
Saturday (16 March 2013)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 18 March 2013 with the title "Joyful night of percussions".

Percussion concerts invariably involve 20th century and new music, and for the reasons below are also most engaging events. A large audience filled with school students attended this concert by the Conservatory Percussion Ensemble, part of the 6th Singapore Chamber Music Festival.

Percussion instruments are the most primeval of sound-makers. Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood (1973) was a case in point. It involved five persons striking pairs of claves – essentially wooden cylinders of different timbres – in varying sequences and rhythms.

Its minimalism was not in paucity of sound, but miniscule shifts and variations that take place within 9 minutes which made the work both absorbing and hypnotic. Imagine the scene when cavemen first discovered that sticks and stones made specific sounds, or a forest of cicadas during mating season. The audience, hitherto rowdy, was transfixed into silence.

The next two works highlighted unpitched and pitched percussion in their glorious diversity. Brett William Dietz’s Sharpened Stick (2000) was a study of rhythmic precision, and how the five players mastered and alternated between tom-toms, bongos, congas, brake-drums, bells and cymbals was admirable. Their shouts of “Yo-ho!”, reflecting native-American origins, punctuated the work and added to its raucousness.

Thomas Gauger’s Gainsborough (1965) relegated rhythm in favour of melody. Two marimbas, with their mellow vibes, were contrasted with the more metallic resonance of the vibraphone, the latter played with much adroitness by Shi Boya in the slow movement. The final Presto was an exuberant ride, fuelled by Bartokian energy and a jazzy beat.

The piece de occasion was ensemble director Jonathan Fox’s 2013 orchestration of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet (1940) for nine percussionists and string quartet. Purists and pianists might throw up their hands with despair in the face of this extravagance, but this is much in the covertly anarchic spirit of the Russian composer himself. Witness Shostakovich’s own percussion-heavy treatment of his Fifteenth Symphony or Vincent Youman’s Tea For Two.

The G minor opening chord and flourish, usually undertaken with a heavy-heart by the pianist, was shared by the percussionists. The succinct quality of the statement was rendered diffuse as a result but it soon got better as the “piano” themes became better delineated.

Surrounded on three sides, the T’ang Quartet was forced to up its volume projection of this deeply personal and troubled work. In the fugue and fourth movement passacaglia, percussion was employed sparingly, allowing the strings to lay on the pathos thickly with a shovel.

It was open season, however, in the uproarious Scherzo and mock-gaiety of the finale. The nine players functioned as a disciplined and well-drilled group, and while the temptation to overwhelm the strings was ever present, the fine overall balance was maintained without sacrificing the music’s subversive character.

Violist Lionel Tan (left) of the T'ang Quartet is happy to play the cowbell too.

The encore was an over-the-top arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze. As the four members of the T’ang Quartet ditched their strings to join the kitchen department, one was left with the suspicion that string players, like pianists, are percussionist wannabes after all.

Percussion ensemble director Jonathan Fox salutes his 13 percussionists.

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