February 11, 2016
by Vivien Schweitzer
Works for drums can be rich in rhythm and timbre, but are often harmonically less interesting because of the pitch limitations of the instrument. But a new piece by the Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy, given its New York premiere at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Third Coast Percussion on Wednesday, proved an exception.
Inspired by the museum’s historic collection of percussion instruments and by the techniques used to play the bodhran, a traditional Irish frame drum, Mr. Dennehy’s “Surface Tension” incorporated an unusually wide spectrum of pitches.
Numerous percussion instruments were spread out on the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium stage, with some ensemble members performing from the balcony to generate an enveloping sound. The harmonic range of the tom-toms was expanded by blowing air into tubes attached to the side of the drums, which stretched the drumheads and thus the variety of pitches. The ensemble (whose members are Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and David Skidmore) learned the technique from the drummer Glenn Kotche.
The most memorable sections of the piece were created when the musicians bowed percussion instruments like the marimba, which created a haunting, mellow drone over which unfolded rhythmic patterns of varying mood and urgency.
The contrasting moods of Steve Reich’s “Sextet” (1984), performed in honor of that composer’s 80th birthday this year, also proved striking. The ensemble was joined by David Friend and Oliver Hagen, who performed the piano and synthesizer parts.
Like most of Mr. Reich’s music, this sextet is notable for its rhythmic complexity, pulsing energy, ecstatic moods and harmonic shifts, here given extra resonance by shifting light patterns. After the more mellow middle movements, the finale, aptly titled “fast,” unfolded with the requisite electric energy.