We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018


Juilliard Percussion Ensemble at Alice Tully Hall

Last night we stepped way out of our usual territory to review some exciting new works for percussion by faculty members and graduate students from Princeton University, a leading incubator of compositional talent in the United States. Whilst we have found contemporary vocal compositions to be largely boring, contemporary percussion compositions we found to be rather exciting, as they created an exotic soundscape.

We heard six works and weren't bored for a minute. The opening work Four for Flexatones by Juri Seo captured our attention not only because of the originality of the handheld instruments but because of the aspect of body movement. The four musicians walked around the stage and tossed the sounds around as if they were balls. It was a playful dance in which the musicians became dancers accompanying themselves. At one moment, they simultaneously drew bows from their backpacks and appeared like samurai.

Steven Mackey's Madrigal, conducted by Daniel Druckman, created a pleasing sound world in which the female voice was just another component. Soprano Michelle Geffner has a lovely voice but, unfortunately, the text she sang was incomprehensible. We are not even sure it was English. But it didn't matter. It was the texture of the voice melded with a variety of percussion instruments that was so pleasurable to the ear.

We loved Donnacha Dennehy's Surface Tension in which the percussionists produced waves of sound, rising and falling with varying dynamics. The idea was to let the drums sing on various pitches, manipulating the tone by means of blowing air through a tube into the side of the drum. Various other techniques were seen.  For example, the keys of the vibraphone and the marimba were sometimes bowed instead of struck, producing interesting timbres.

Oscar Bettison's Four Drums for Dresden was the least interesting of the six pieces, relying more on a theoretical concept than on a compelling result. The idea was to get live percussion to imitate electronic dance music. To our ears, it sounded a lot like noise, although we did enjoy the syncopated central section.

Far more interesting was Caroline Shaw's taxidermy in which the musicians played on flower pots. This sounded original and was especially pleasing when they were played in intervals of a minor third. We thought of the glass harmonica and how simple household objects are worth exploring for their unusual voices. The spoken text at the conclusion of the piece added nothing of value. The music spoke for itself.

In Pillar IV, Andy Akiho used a variety of experimental techniques to produce a collection of odd sounds. There were some highly pitched sounds punctuated by the forceful bass drum. Conventional percussion instruments were played in unorthodox manners, reminding us very much of children at play who don't follow the rules. It was a freeing experience watching drums being beaten on their frames and vibraphones being struck on the tubes instead of the keys.

Let's have a big round of applause for innovation and experimentation! The Juilliard musicians were Omar El-Abidin, Simon Herron, Euijin Jung, Yoon Jun Kim, Benjamin Cornavaca, Toby Grace, Joseph Bricker, Tyler Cunningham, Stella Perlic, Yibing Wang, Jacob Borden, Harrison Honor, Mizuki Morimoto, and Leo Simon.

(c) meche kroop

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