Review: New Philip Glass commission presents a rhythmic perspective

April 4, 2019
by Joshua Kosman

The members of the dynamic young quartet Third Coast Percussion have, by their own account, a small problem as classically trained performers. None of the old masters — not Mozart, not Brahms, hell not even Stravinsky — left any music for percussion ensemble.

So the group members have taken it upon themselves to replenish the repertoire, both through their own compositions and by commissioning music from living composers they admire. The latest fruit of these efforts — a buoyant, enjoyable and somewhat distracted new opus by Philip Glass — was the centerpiece of the group’s ingratiating recital on Wednesday, April 3, in Herbst Theatre.

Glass’ “Perpetulum” was co-commissioned by San Francisco Performances, the concert’s presenter, and it’s a spirited compilation of various Glassian tropes channeled through this new and unexplored medium. (The piece is also the title track on Third Coast’s expansive new recording.)

The old familiar harmonic progressions show up in new guises, and the rocking rhythmic patterns that suffuse so much of Glass’ music take on a gently thrumming demeanor when transferred to the mallet instruments. What’s striking, too, is the way “Perpetulum” bears a cousinly relationship to the distinctive contours and practices of Glass’ writing for piano, which in turn is something of a stand-alone vein within the vast expanse of his output.

But the feature of “Perpetulum” that is most immediately evident, for better or worse, is Glass’ delight in the range of sonorities and resources a percussion ensemble makes available to him. You can practically hear his serial excitement as he tackles one idea after another, dashing from instrument to instrument like a kid in a toy store.

This gives the 20-minute, three-movement piece an undeniable vivacity, combined with a certain short-attention-span quality that is frustrating and oddly uncharacteristic. Glass has never been one to shy away from exploring every implication of a given musical idea, at whatever length; to hear him skip about like this, leaving things introduced but unresolved, is slightly odd.

Third Coast, which comprises percussionists Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and David Skidmore, gave the work a richly textured performance at any rate, and surrounded it with music that both flattered and set off its qualities.

Most exciting, perhaps, was “Death Wish,” a piece for marimbas by the New Zealand-born composer Gemma Peacocke, in which repetitive rhythmic figures and minor-key harmonies grow increasingly off-kilter until seemingly anodyne material becomes urgent and a little menacing. Midway through, Peacocke conjures up a fierce but loving parody of Khachaturian’s “Saber Dance” that demonstrates exactly why that music is so irresistible.

A lot of the evening was devoted to mallet instruments (marimba, vibraphone and so forth) creating rippling textures out of interlocking rhythmic figures. Some of it, such as Devonté Hynes’ “Perfectly Voiceless” or the ensemble’s group composition “Niagara,” was attractive and slightly bland; Skidmore’s “Torched and Wrecked,” which concluded the program in a thrilling burst of carefully controlled fury, threw a cherry bomb into the works just when it was most needed.

As an encore, the group offered “Teeth,” a tiny and delightfully pretty bauble by San Francisco composer Danny Clay that uses the plinky, metal-comb-like mechanisms of a toy music box. The piece wafted sweetly and quietly into the hall, leaving patrons to go out humming one last tune.


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