The Arts Fuse: Third Coast Percussion at the Rockport Music Festival

Published on June 17, 2024 by Aaron Keebaugh       |      Share this post!

“The restive intensity these musicians conveyed were reminders why, nearly 20 years on, Third Coast Percussion has retained its uncanny freshness and vitality. The reason is simple: they perform as deeply as they listen.”

It has been nearly 20 years, but Third Coast Percussion has managed to retain its uncanny freshness and vitality.

The Concerto for Violin and Percussion Orchestra remains one of the most original scores in the chamber repertoire. And given that its composer, Lou Harrison, bent tradition every creative which way, that is really saying something.

For much of his creative life, Harrison was a musical chameleon, as at home with the 12-tone techniques of Arnold Schoenberg as he was with the diatonicism of Aaron Copland and clamorous pastiches of Charles Ives.

Yet his affinity for rhythm — and the often-forceful use of it — established him as a unique voice in 20th-century American music. Harrison helped rethink the percussion ensemble as a viable expressive force. Several works, such as Concerto No. 1 and Canticle No. 1, call for sizable percussion sections. But above those stands the Concerto for Violin and Percussion Orchestra, though the notorious 1959 piece is still read about more than heard.

Reassuringly, the rare live performance at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival this past weekend proved the durability of this thrilling novelty. Third Coast Percussion and guest violinist Blake Pouliot performed Harrison’s memorable composition with striking panache at the Shalin Liu Performance Center.

Spanning three movements, Harrison’s concerto is a marvel of pulsating flamboyance. Needless to say, pulling off that kind of dynamic animation requires no small amount of grit and virtuosity. Pouliot’s presence was felt from the get-go. To open, he unspooled an angular melody with a wine-dark tone. The performance only grew increasingly intense from there. The five percussionists surrounded Pouliot in sound as well as sight, underscoring his phrases with driving energy.

And that sonic infectiousness never let up over the course of the piece; the supporting ensemble offered a feast for the ears. The Third Coast musicians, joined by guest percussionist Ian Ding, struck, scraped, and slapped everything from brake drums to flowerpots and cowbells.

Yet they could also, when called for, accompany Pouliot with impressive sensitivity. The Largo opened simply, with the violinist’s line dancing above soft hits from a maraca. A wild frenzy of sound soon followed. In the finale, Pouliot and Third Coast Percussion played with a devil-may-care swagger that brought the audience to its feet.

Two pieces by Jessie Montgomery invited greater reflection, even solace.

Third Coast performed member Sean Connors’s arrangement of three movements from In Color, a work that Montgomery had originally scored for tuba and string quartet. This version, for mallet percussion, retains the uneasy stasis of the original. Two of these movements — “The Poet,” and “Purple” — channel ghostly wails and echo effects, created by deep marimba sonorities and bowed keys. “Red,” which opened the set, teemed with bluesy assurance. Those passages blazed aplenty in this performance.

Study no. 1, completed just last year, was Montgomery’s first piece for percussion ensemble. But it’s still a remarkable achievement. Over the course of eight minutes, the timbres in this score gradually transform. The composition opened with the musicians hammering away at various drums and blowing air into the chambers between drumheads, which caused the pitch to dip. This is a self-conscious study in sonic variety: rhythms move from singing bowls to the silvery sheen of ringing triangles. The sounds evaporate suddenly into what feels like random pulses on small cymbals, which are then dipped into bowls of water to alter their pitch. Third Coast milked the multisonic effect for all its playful humor, serving up Montgomery’s score with evident gusto.

Rubix, a joint composition between Third Coast and Flutronix, made less of an impression. “Play,” the first of this two-movement set, felt like a clichéd cross between John Cage and Steve Reich. Playing against a recording of flute calls, the music jerked and stuttered stubbornly rather than unfolding with logical ease. Mechanical pulses entered the fray, only to stop and start fitfully. The only genuinely interesting sounds came in the middle section, which involved the percussionists pushing and pulling rhythms against each other — applying a Reichian phase technique. But that interruption was short-lived; the musical structure then just reverses course.

“Go” has a seismic groove that proved more invigorating. Overall, however, Rubix feels merely gestural. But it’s obviously a score that Third Coast believes in. They played it with vigor as they attempted to make the most of its paltry essence.

Selections from Philip Glass’s Aguas da Amazonia was a valuable reminder that minimalism, when done well, can be substantive. Third Coast’s arrangement of three movements from this set made colorful use of marimbas, cymbals, gongs, and boomwhackers. The latter, often the star of viral videos, emphasized the gliding pulses of Glass’s cross-rhythms in “Purus River.”

Tactile energy also supplied the backbone of “Negro River,” which called for the musicians to build the music steadily over a harmonic vamp. Generous exploitation of dynamics also dug into the composition’s myriad dimensions.

“Madeira River” glowed due to the marimba’s deep, dark sonority. Third Coast performed like a true tandem team, here attuned to every high-powered rise and fall.

The group opened the concert with Tigran Hamasyan’s Etude No. 1, heard here in Peter Martin’s adaptation — for mallet percussion — of this composition for piano. The restive intensity these musicians conveyed were reminders why, nearly 20 years on, Third Coast Percussion has retained its uncanny freshness and vitality. The reason is simple: they perform as deeply as they listen.