Chicago Classical Review: Third Coast Percussion gives shining advocacy to epic Burritt premiere

Published on December 6, 2023 by Tim Sawyier       |      Share this post!

“It is hard to imagine better advocacy for this new score than what TCP provided with their infectious camaraderie and trademark joy in performing.”

Not getting nominated for Grammys seems to be a struggle for the Chicago-based Third Coast Percussion (TCP) these days. The dynamic percussion ensemble recently received their seventh nomination for the award.

TCP’s homestand at the DePaul University School of Music’s Holtschneider Performance Center Tuesday night made it easy to see why the group continues to amass accolades and praise.

The main event was the Chicago premiere of Michael Burritt’s Since Time Began, which TCP debuted at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention a few weeks ago. A 35-minute, four-movement work of symphonic scope and ambition, Since Time Began was written for TCP to honor the 400th anniversary of Zildjian, the storied instrument company long renowned for their cymbals. 

Burritt was also a mentor to TCP while they were students at Northwestern, and said in the program, “When your students become your heroes, you know you’re doing something right.”

Each movement of Burritt’s score seeks to evoke one century of Zildjian’s history. That begins with “Alchemy (1623),” which starts with the ensemble members offstage. We hear a recorded chiming marimba, and gradually the four musicians enter from the wings and back of the hall. They solemnly strike long tubular pipes as they proceed and once assembled on stage, lay these on a table to form a pipe rack, then take up mallets to switch to marimbas. A moderate, contrapuntal texture emerges from the marimbas, evoking and updating Baroque music of the 17th century, and the music builds to an ecstatic, clangorous level before subsiding into silence.

“Campana (1723)” begins with thundering drums and cymbals, the “A” section of quasi-rondo form meant to channel the Classical era. A jazzy riff emerges on the snare with clangs and rimshots swirling around it, after which a bowed marimba and hand chimes dipped in water produce intriguing sonorities in the rondo’s episodes. “Homage (1823)” opened with a haunting pulsing, over which the TCP members hummed the Turkish folk song, “Weep, Sad One, Weep.” The gentle accompaniment eventually takes over and is built into a complex, glittering climax, before returning to the opening texture. A single bowed cymbal punctuates the reflective movement.

The closing “Revolutions (1923)” is a mélange of styles meant to reflect the musical melting pot of the last century. The drum set gives a jazzy propulsion to a dancing solo xylophone, which ultimately gives way to a general breakneck skittering. The impression is of an eclectic, driving jambalaya, with a memorable climactic moment for dueling crash cymbals.

It is hard to imagine better advocacy for this new score than what TCP provided with their infectious camaraderie and trademark joy in performing. If parts of Since Time Began could benefit from judicious pruning—isolated portions sometimes feel repetitious and deafening—it remains a kaleidoscopic work that is sure to find a place in the percussion quartet repertoire.

The balance of the program featured fare familiar to TCP fans from their albums. They opened with “The Hero” by Clarice Assad, a movement extracted from the composer’s 12-movement Archetypes, written for herself, TCP, and her father Sergio, but heard here in a TCP arrangement for percussion ensemble alone. The four-minute movement has a swashbuckling swagger, with striding high-wire marimba lines conveying valorous esprit.

Three movements from Machado Mijiga’s Situations Suite came next, and demonstrated the composer’s wide-ranging musical commitments and abilities. The rising marimba arpeggios of “Sorcery” recalled the opening prelude of The Well-Tempered Clavier but in the context of a tropical languor. “Treachery” begins with a skittish tapping on a marimba as ominous harmonies begin to wander and an atmosphere of foreboding prevails via the vibes. Insistent gestures pervade the closing “Mastery,” sounding at times frantic, at others dancelike and graceful, before the work stops on a dime.

Gemma Peackocke’s Death Wish was the one work on the program not written for TCP. The workwas inspired by a New Zealand sexual assault survivor whose life spirals out of control following her deeply traumatic experience. 

Death Wish begins with a vulnerable high tremolo on the marimba, punctuated by low libidinal throbs from its lowest register. This gives way to a desperate, precarious racing, in which isolated pitches emerge from swirling textures, giving the sense of an obsessive idée fixe, before the music returns to its tremulous origins to conclude. TCP’s artful rendering of these gripping ten minutes of music offereda compelling portrayal of a fractured psychological process.

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