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March 24, 2003

The art of extreme percussion

From:, TN - Mar 24, 2003


By Bill Ellis
March 24, 2003

How we hear.

That faculty - esthetic and physical - was challenged in the most musical of ways on Saturday. And it took a deaf percussionist to do it.

Performing to a sold-out house of more than 800 at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre, Scottish percussion virtuoso Evelyn Glennie and chamber orchestra IRIS, under music director Michael Stern, ventured the emotional and sonic gamut. Some in the audience probably never heard anything like it.

Her first piece with the talented ensemble was a vibraphone arrangement she made of Vivaldi's Concerto in C major for piccolo, strings and basso continuo, RV 443. Taken at a race-horse tempo, the outer movements were flawlessly precise, a sequential flurry of mallets (Glennie performs barefoot to feel the music's pulse). Also remarkable was her sense of terraced dynamics, so nuanced and extreme that it tested the very sonic depths of the GPAC hall - her tonic resolution at the end of the middle movement was a pianissimo so soft, you almost had to feel its existence.

Harpsichordist Joshua Nemith provided a marvelous call-and-response continuo, while the strings stayed so perfectly taut, nothing ever distracted from the star.

Still, vibraphones and Vivalidi don't quite jell and were two sounds as greatly opposed in their own way as Glennie's use of dynamics.

The night's cynosure came next, however - Veni, Veni Emmanuel - and what a spectacular achievement, both as a composition and performance. Written for Glennie by Scottish composer James MacMillan, the 25-minute percussion concerto pulled out all the stops, so to speak.

Based on a 15th Century French Advent plainsong, the massively constructed sectional work is scored for orchestra and more than 12 types of percussive instruments, from cowbells, log drum and timbales to the mark tree (or wind chimes), congas and marimba.

Opening with a startling double gong blast, the rigorous, religious work was noise as catharsis, the redemptive cry of the inarticulate soul. The limits of IRIS were pushed, and they waffled in a few places, but the performance was overall a heroic, moving one.

Glennie was amazing to behold as she glided across the stage from one battery of percussion to the next. The stunning finale ended with the performer's shadow cast in pink light as she played tubular bells. For being a big, brash piece, it was the work's final note-fading minutes of silence that registered loudest.

IRIS bookended the concert with Romantic grandeur. Mendelssohn's Op. 26 overture Fingal's Cave (or The Hebrides) was liquid melody in the hands of the players, fitting for its Scottish pastoral program, while Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 1, Op. 38 - the "Spring Symphony" - carried such programmatic intent into the realm of rebirth and hope.

Stern has worked hard at achieving a wholeness of interpretation and attack in his young orchestra, heard so seductively exact in the evening's choice of material. A golden era for IRIS is, indeed, at hand.

- Bill Ellis: 529-2517

Copyright 2003 - The Commercial Appeal is an E.W. Scripps Company newspaper.