Concert Review: Third Coast Percussion hits all the right notes



June 24, 2016

by Robert Croan

It was not your grandmother’s chamber music at East Liberty’s Kelly Strayhorn Theater Thursday. Chamber Music Pittsburgh opened its enterprising Just Summer! season with a rousing and riveting concert by Chicago’s Third Coast Percussion — sounds quite unlike anything you’re likely to hear elsewhere in Pittsburgh.

The concert featuring virtuoso players Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and David Skidmore traversed wide-ranging works for percussion groups, from John Cage’s seminal “Third Construction” (1941) up to a recent work by Mr. Skidmore, who was percussionist with Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble from 2007-11. Mr. Connors and Mr. Martin also have performed with PNME.

In traditional classical music, rhythm is the skeleton of a composition, while melody is the flesh. With percussion, the equation is often reversed. With melody and harmony taken away (or diminished), rhythm, timbre and dynamics dominate.

The instruments can be just about anything that can make sounds. And in the case of Third Coast, there’s a focal visual element. Lighting, theatrics and the very act of how the performers get the sounds from their unusual devices, are part of the show.

The ensemble opened with Owen Clayton Condon’s “Fractalia,” a work composed for Third Coast in 2011, which transforms into sound — mainly in the varying registers of multiple marimbas — the equivalent of fragmented visual geometric shapes. It was followed by the mesmerizing “Table Music” of Belgian composer Thierry De Mey. Here, three tables were placed on top of one larger table, enhanced with inner amplification to create a wholly new instrument with its own unique sound world. The players choreographed their hand work, from strident slapping to gentle pianistic taps and rubbing on the surfaces.

Alexandre Lunsqui’s “Shi,” later on, called on an even more uncommon collection of instruments, among them Chinese chopsticks, sushi mats, glass jars and a barbecue grill. The woodblocks are most prominent, at various moments scraping, bouncing or rubbing against the wooden surfaces.

“Prayer,” a movement from Augusta Read Thomas’ “Resounding Earth,” was a striking contrast to “Table Music,” a quiet moment that was perhaps the most conventional music of the evening. This composer is particularly interested in bells from the world over, and “Prayer” exploits the Japanese “singing bowl” — Rin — along with many other bells. The work was an appropriate interlude between the upbeat “Table Music” and Mr. Skidmore’s stirring, highly charged “Trying,” which closed the first half.

“Trying” features two marimbas alongside heavy metal pipes and junk sounds. Mr. Skidmore is adept at varying standard metric patterns by slicing the measures in surprising ways. He is also sensitive to the coloristic possibilities of the instruments alone and in combination with each other. Quite engaging is the improvisatory middle movement, which gives the players rhythmic patterns to work in tandem, producing quasi-random ensemble outcomes.

The music of two older composers, Steve Reich and Mr. Cage, framed the second half and imparted a historical perspective. Mr. Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood produces an infinite number of patterns by sticks hitting flat wooden slabs. In what has become classical “minimalist” style, the composer sets up a rhythm and varies it slightly or greatly to make each repetition sound simultaneously the same and different. Swedish composer Tobias Brostrom’s “Twilight,” following the Reich piece, exploited the softer possibilities of percussion in different ways, eliciting particularly lovely unexpected sonorities from the marimba.

Mr. Cage’s great “Third Construction” is the mother of them all: tin cans, wooden rattles, tom-toms, cow bells, a conch shell that today seems like something out of “Lord of the Flies,” and so much more, composed at a time when this way of musical thinking was entirely new and unprecedented.

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