February 25, 2014
by John von Rhein
Sitting in a packed house of excited, engaged young people at a concert by Third Coast Percussion last week in the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts, I was reminded how much the city’s lively – and getting livelier all the time – new-music scene owes to the active involvement of this age group.
Clearly there is something going on here: Audiences made up mostly of twentysomethings are eating up the music of living composers, whether the sounds are being served up in a formal concert space such as the Logan’s inviting Performance Hall, or at an intimate alternative venue such as Constellation in Chicago’s Roscoe Village. The enthusiasm of these rock-weaned young listeners clearly is being felt by the performers and is given back in their music-making.
Just ask Third Coast. Chicago’s dynamic percussion quartet has built an admirable niche for itself within the city’s growing community of contemporary classical ensembles while serving as an entrepreneurial model for the others.
Professional percussion groups no longer are a rarity in classical music, but neither are they as common as, say, string quartets. And so Third Coast members Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and David Skidmore had to make their own career path.
The players met as students at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, where their teacher was the renowned percussionist-pedagogue Michael Burritt, who’s now head of the percussion department of the Eastman School of Music. “Michael was an amazing teacher and a really great mentor for us,” says Skidmore, who doubles as the ensemble’s executive director. “We basically fell in love with the percussion repertory he was teaching us and decided we wanted to make a living doing it as a group.”
Third Coast’s official debut came in July 2005 at the Music Institute of Chicago in Evanston. “It was very much a renegade, ad hoc performance,” Skidmore recalls. “We threw as many drums as we could in the backs of our cars, drove across town and played for friends and family.”
Skidmore and colleagues began lining up further engagements around town and, as their name-recognition grew, in other parts of the country. Third Coast now maintains a busy concert and touring schedule, and its residencies have included the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture and Taliesin Preservation Inc. in Wisconsin and Arizona. The group saves on overhead by handling its own business affairs. Skidmore does the bookings, Dillon writes grant applications, Martin writes contracts and budgets, and Connors “figures out how we get where we’re going and what we need to bring with us,” Skidmore explains.
Home base remains Chicago, where local partner organizations have included the Adler Planetarium and, earlier this month, UChicago Arts’ five-month-long “Envisioning China” festival of arts and culture. Third Coast’s unique musical product, and the skill with which it’s presented, has won the ensemble regional and national recognition as well. Last fall it became ensemble-in-residence at the University of Notre Dame’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, a five-year appointment. In the course of its six-week annual residencies the group will be partnering across several academic disciplines.
Case in point: A collaboration with the Notre Dame School of Engineering on a new work by Glenn Kotche, drummer of the rock band Wilco, that requires the players to build their instruments onstage as part of the performance. “Right now we have scientists looking at materials durable enough to withstand multiple performances,” Skidmore says of the piece, which is scheduled to be premiered in October on the Notre Dame campus near South Bend, Ind. “It’s so far beyond what we are capable of realizing on our own, which is what makes the idea so exciting for us.”
Another outgrowth of Third Coast’s residency at Notre Dame is the percussion piece “Resounding Earth” by Augusta Read Thomas, a former Chicago Symphony Orchestra resident composer who now serves as a University Professor at the U. of C. Thomas worked closely with Skidmore and his fellow musicians as they collected more than 125 bells from around the world to create the work’s sound-world. They then spent countless hours refining nuances, tunings, even the onstage placement of the vast battery of bells and gongs. Skidmore estimates Third Coast has performed the piece some 17 times across the country since premiering it at Notre Dame in September 2012. The performance I caught last week at the U. of C. concluded the group’s February residency there.
The four sections of “Resounding Earth” celebrate, in the composer’s words, “commonality across all cultures,” along with “the extraordinary beauty and diversity of expression” of instruments – including Burmese spinning bells, Indian Noah bells, Thai gongs and Japanese singing bowls, or rin. There’s a ritualistic quality to Thomas’ tintinnabulations, each percussionist assuming by turns a kind of hieratic function. Bell sounds at once ancient and modern – bright, dark, shimmering, shattering, rhythmic, lyric – combine to create a wondrous, otherworldly carillon. I found the delicate cosmic song of the Japanese rin in the “Prayer” section absolutely haunting.
The Third Coast players made a terrific case for “Resounding Earth” along with other percussion works by John Cage and Guo Wenjing. Their recording of “Resounding Earth,” containing spot-on audio and video performances, is available on New Focus Recordings. And Nimbus Alliance has just released a CD of Thomas’ orchestral and chamber ensemble works, taken from concert performances by the CSO and MusicNOW ensembles under Pierre Boulez, Cliff Colnot and others. Further good news: The label has two more discs of Thomas’ music in the pipeline.
If you’re curious to hear more of what Third Coast Percussion is up to, you can catch them in live performance with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, March 13-16 at the Harris Theater; or you can immerse yourself in their latest recording, David T. Little’s unsettling if colorful and compelling “ghost-play,” “Haunt of Last Nightfall,” on New Amsterdam Records.