Big Bang Theory
A musical box of chocolates: Big Bang concert from River Oaks Chamber Orchestra aims to be a journey
Here's a sure way to confuse anyone: Tell them you are a percussionist.
It isn't like mastering the violin, piano or some obscure cousin of the oboe in which a musician focuses on one principal instrument and perhaps a few of its brothers and sisters — like the flute plus the piccolo, the clarinet plus the pesky e-flat soprano or a singer and a metronome (because we all know vocalists can't count or keep time).
The designation of "percussionist" is akin to "engineer," a label that baffles more than it clarifies as the métier encompasses anything from banging on a can, plucking a cactus, clapping, hitting the daylights out of a tam tam, sinking a gong in water, massaging a crystal glass and making thunderous sounds by undulating a large sheet of metal, in addition to more traditional instruments, say the timpani, snare drum, marimba, tambourine, triangle, castanets and cymbals. And the whip — one of my personal favorites.
"Everyone reacts to music in their own way. Music takes them through their own pathway."
Behold one of the challenges of scoring for percussion: There are just too many choices. Too many possibilities. And as one of personality traits of masters of baterie (note: don't call them drummers) is a willingness to do just about anything — heck, Lou Harrison wrote for oxygen tanks and muted plumber's pipes — a percussion concerto is not dissimilar to opening a box of chocolates.
You never know what you are going to get.
The River Oaks Chamber Orchestra (ROCO) Saturday and Sunday concert, ably titled "Big Bang," programs the Houston premiere of New Jersey-native Jonathan Leshnoff's Concerto for Two Percussionists & Orchestra with soloists Matt McClung, who performs regularly with the ensemble, and Todd Meehan. André Raphel, who was assistant to Kurt Masur at the New York Philharmonic and served as assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, makes his ROCO debut.
It's the potential of creating vivid timbers that first lured Leshnoff, whose first instrument was violin, to write for percussion. Critics have noted that this young composer's aesthetic anchors on "fresh sonorities" (Dallas Morning News), "iridescent colors," (Washington Post) and "tart, insinuating harmonies," (San Francisco Chronicle). His music has been performed by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and recorded on the Naxos label's American Classic series.
"When I first was starting out professionally, the only musicians who were interested in my works were percussionists and saxophonists," Leshnoff jokes. "Perhaps its their adventurous nature that attracted them to my music."
The piece originally started with the Meehan/Perkins Duo, comprising of Todd Meehan, assistant professor of percussion at Baylor University, and Doug Perkins. As is sometimes customary with new contemporary music commissions, the concerto was underwritten by a consortium of players, including the duo, ROCO, Baylor University Symphony, Duluth-Superior Symphony Orchestra and the Round Top Festival Institute, where the work had its world premiere in June.
"If I don't take somebody somewhere, then I haven't fulfilled my responsibility as a composer."
"There's always a practical limitation when writing for percussion instruments," Leshnoff says. "It's very important to think about stage layout — that can be a nightmare — and how the musicians are going to get around the instruments. And what fits in a truck."
The three-part oeuvre flourishes from what he calls a germ kernel motif whose job is to generate material that unites the overarching compositional framework. Yet Leshnoff paints a different aural world from movement to movement by how he groups together percussion instruments. In Con Forza (with force), he opts for membranophones (unpitched instruments) such as tom toms, bongos and wood blocks that forge rapidly changing textures. The middle movement exploits the metallic qualities of the crotales and the vibraphone, sometimes played with a double bass bow, to render glorious, resonant and lyrical tones that find repose in an inconclusive ending.
The last movement, which is introduced via a cadenza, is primarily written for two marimbas. It's a driving tour de force with shifting symmetrical and asymmetrical meters that blasts off from incessant virtuosic passages in the solo lines that are later mimicked and repeated by the strings and winds. It's a wild escapade reminiscent of John Adams' Short Ride in a Fast Machine.
"I feel very strongly that I take audiences on a journey," Leshnoff explains. "If I don't take somebody somewhere, then I haven't fulfilled my responsibility as a composer."
So hop on. What do you have to lose?
"Everyone reacts to music in their own way. Music takes them through their own pathway — in their own heart and soul. But if I don't take them with me, I've failed. I'm interested in helping audiences find something meaningful in music."
On the program are also selections by Respighi, Mendelssohn and a surprise piece, typical of ROCO musicales — like a box of chocolates.