Friday, November 15, 2013

Third Coast Percussion makes a hit with Ensemble Music audience at the Toby

There was everything from the raucous to the ethereal in Third Coast Percussion's concert Thursday night at the Indianapolis Museum of Art — offering more bang for the Ensemble Music buck.

With mallets aforethought: Third Coast Percussion played up a storm.
The Chicago-based quartet, currently enjoying a residency at the University of Notre Dame, played three substantial works in the simpatico setting of the Tobias Theater, whose wide, high stage allowed the ensemble's sounds to flower throughout the hall. Lighting was complementary, particularly in the concluding piece, Augusta Read Thomas' "Resounding Earth," which was written last year for the ensemble.

Three works were played by the versatile, dead-on-precise foursome of David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and Sean Connors. Thomas's celebration of bell sonorities occupied the second half, its four movements saturated with tintinnabulation, a cosmic and never darkening expansion of  Edgar Allan Poe's verse echo chamber.

Third Coast romped over its playground of rack-suspended percussion idiophones as the four-movement work unfolded, showing a characteristic delicacy of touch and timing accuracy. If the work seemed excessive by the time its omnium-gatherum finale rolled around — during which every one of the assembled 300-plus instruments was struck —  you could always enjoy taking in the play of performer-and-equipment shadows on the slanted proscenium wall. A pleasing theatrical touch ended "Resounding Earth": The four musicians came to the front of the stage, brightly lit as they sounded a solitary chord on the tubular bell each one held.

There was one ambitious masterpiece on the program. With pianists Daniel Schlosberg and Amy Briggs at a pair of Steinway grands, two members of Third Coast Percussion played George Crumb's "Makrokosmos III: Music for a Summer Evening." This 1974 work is the third in a piano-based series whose title puns on the the multivolume didactic monument "Mikrokosmos" by Bela Bartok, a substantial early influence on the composer.

"Makrokosmos III" showed the pianists fully attuned to each other and to the exposed, exaggerated dynamic range of their instruments, which the composer calls for to be amplified. The coordination with the percussionist pair was stunning and evocative of the host of spiritual scenarios Crumb lays out in the 35-minute composition.

Structurally, there are lots overlays in this music, as the composer's notes make clear, and yet the expressive impact is invariably univocal. It was that kind of performance that the four musicians presented. Even the one quotation Crumb inserts displays his emphasis on making form serve both sound and expressiveness. In the finale, the D-sharp minor fugue from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Volume II is used for the subject's melodic poignancy; its fugal utility is pared away, as phrases sound with a distancing effect from sheets of paper placed over piano strings. (Similar distortion of piano sound, projected tellingly through amplification, plays a crucial role in the first two volumes of "Makrokosmos.")

The Bach episode is vital in putting a trace of historical context in the far-reaching "Music of the Starry Night" movement, the work's longest, which brings "Music for a Summer Evening" to an extenuated close. Coming after the quasi-primitive violence of "Myth," the preceding movement, this poised, deceptively fragile conclusion is wholly persuasive. Cast in different terms from a sound perspective, the music recalls the "farewell" gestures in Mahler.

John Cage's pioneering percussion-ensemble piece, "Third Construction," opened the show. And "show" doesn't seem to be a cheapened designation when such a virtuoso percussion group is onstage. The 1941 composition works rich changes of timbre into a nearly unvarying pulse. Crowning bursts of conch shell played a climactic role in a piece characterized by tuned drums and fragmentary scale patterns. Its gateway inclusion showed the long foreground of the independence percussion has attained, particularly as its foundational role in world music has become more familiar to classical audiences. The existence of such groups as Third Coast Percussion lends assurance to the thought that this young tradition can only become richer.