Chicago Classical Review: Third Coast Percussion shows dynamic versatility in three varied premieres

Published on December 8, 2022 by Tim Sawyier       |      Share this post!

“Chicago can feel proud to call Third Coast Percussion one of our own.”

Chicago can feel proud to call Third Coast Percussion one of our own. The dynamic percussion quartet of Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore has an increasingly international presence, and they are up for multiple Grammys again with their most recent album Perspectives.

After opening their season with a program of Philip Glass, on Wednesday night, TCP debuted their latest touring program, “Rituals and Meditations,” at DePaul School of Music’s Gannon Recital Hall, before taking the show on the road in the new year.

The group raised the curtain Wednesday with Chicago native Ayanna Woods’ 2018 Triple Point. Commissioned by TCP and also featured on their pre-pandemic program at the University of Chicago, the work made an excellent overture.

The “triple point” of a substance is the temperature and pressure at which it can exist simultaneously as a liquid, gas, and solid, a site of both wild fluctuation and stasis. Woods conveys this via jagged opening bars that then give way to a cyclical, hypnotic texture, spun out by Connors and Dillon on marimbas. TCP will be recording Triple Point next week for a forthcoming album, which should broaden this accomplished score’s reach even further.

The remainder of the program comprised three world premieres.

The first of these was co-composed by the four TCP gentlemen themselves. Co-composition is increasingly part of the group’s bailiwick, and this latest effort In Practice, showed it is clearly a generative mode of collaboration for them. (They received their first Grammy nomination as composers in 2021.)

In Practice was inspired by the simple routines that ground a life. The music opens with quiet fluttering on practice pads, before a more insistent rhythm emerges on the marimbas, which grows with haunting harmonies from the bowed vibes and ethereal chimes. The texture develops, becoming increasingly robust as it is filled out by Skidmore’s synth, and deftly conveys the complexity that can arise from discipline and repetition. One could cavil about the canned ocean effects at the very close of the score, but In Practice is an entrancing, at times moving work that merits a place in the percussion repertoire.

The second half opened with the world premiere of Mark Applebaum’s Gauntlet. Applebaum is known for a certain zaniness, to which Gauntlet is no exception. The setup calls for a 24-foot-long table on which are arrayed over 200 small instruments, ranging from kazoos and plastic piping to slide whistles and wind-up toys. The quartet members move from stage left to right “playing” these gadgets in various rapid-fire combinations, often to greatly humorous effect. The concept would fail if it were done halfway, but with this madcap offering, Applebaum clearly takes seriously the notion that one should go big or go home.

Most striking was how the myriad effects sounded genuinely musical. It actually felt like there was a contour to the way the players, say, crumpled paper or squeezed a rubber chicken, phrasing in how they rubbed oven mitts together.

The four men gave their considerable all to this Applebaum commission, and TCP’s performance was enormously impressive. Gauntlet would fail to come off if its performers joined the consistent giggles from the audience, but the TCP gentlemen proceeded with an absolutely professional deadpan.

The final premiere on offer was Missy Mazzoli’s Millennium Canticles, also written for TCP. The score imagines a dystopian future 1,000 years from now, when an unspecified catastrophe has decimated humanity, leaving four survivors. (Skidmore pointed out in a brief interview with Mazzoli from the stage that the survivors are, of course, percussionists.) This quartet attempts to reconstitute the rituals of humanity but repeatedly fractures in its attempts to do so, only coming together in the dark work’s final moments.

Mazzoli offers evocative titles for the five connected movements: “Famous Disaster Psalm,” “The Doubter’s Litany,” “Bloodied Bells,” “Choir of the Holy Locusts,” and “Survival Psalm.” An austere battery of cans and woodblocks gets filled out with guttural vocal gasps and hissed counting from the players. At one point the group solemnly marches in a circle around the setup, drawing throaty growls from a bass drum as they take turns drawing a cord from its membrane.

While the specific plot points of Millennium Canticles would be baffling without Mazzoli’s notes, the score certainly channels the primeval. The textures feel fundamental—hammered, beaten, erupting from the body. They create an image of a desperate attempt to restore order in a fractured world, and what this might feel like. The men of TCP gave stellar advocacy to Mazzoli’s opus for them, and the composer joined them to share the deserved applause.

Third Coast Percussion’s next Chicago concert takes place May 2, 2023, at the Harris Theater.

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