In concert – CBSO Centre Stage: CBSO Percussion Ensemble

Daugherty Lounge Lizards (1994)
Mazzoli
Volume (2006)
Reich
Dance Patterns (2002)
John Luther Adams
Qilyaun (1998)

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Percussion Ensemble [James Keefe, Clíodna Shanahan (pianos), Adrian Spillett, Toby Hearney, Andrew Herbert, Matthew Hardy, RBC Students (percussion)

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Friday 3 December 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

This last Centre Stage recital for 2021 brought a welcome return from the CBSO Percussion Ensemble for a programme such as demonstrated the sheer variety possible in the percussion medium even with the relatively small number of musicians required in most of these pieces.

Although he has written extensively for larger forces, Michael Daugherty is often at his best with chamber groupings as the two pianos and two percussion of Lounge Lizards, whose four sections keenly evoke the composer’s student years playing jazz piano – whether Sip ‘N’ Stir at Cedar Rapids, Dennis Swing Club at Hamburg, Ramada Inn on the New Jersey Turnpike and Bamboo Bar in Amsterdam. A range of ‘cool jazz’ idioms and practitioners is alluded to, with the deadpan humour as has long been a Daugherty hallmark never far below the surface.

Those who heard Missy Mazzoli’s Violent, Violent Sea at a CBSO concert in May will know of her vivid timbral sense, and Volume is no exception. Inspired by the inventive and highly charismatic playing of musicians from Trinidad, it can be performed (as here) with a second vibraphone replacing steel drum and which, heard alongside intricate exchanges for two kick drums and five bottles of water is, to quote the composer, ‘‘a raucous and joyful … homage to the … spirit of innovative music-making’’ – this performance certainly being no exception.

As Adrian Spillett remarked during a platform change, the music of Steve Reich has never been absent from a Centre Stage programme by this group – and Dance Patterns finds this composer at his most dextrous. Written for pairs of pianos, vibraphones and xylophones as part of the Dutch dance-film Counterphrases, its content does no more while no less than is indicated by its title, though such is the deftness and understatement of its interplay that the six-minute duration passes as though in an instant and all too soon dissolves into the ether.

‘Understatement’ is hardly apposite to describe Qilyaun by John Luther Adams – the Iñupiaq word for ‘shaman’s drum’ also ‘device of power’ graphically evoked in this visceral workout for four bass drums. Its gradual deceleration of activity to a midpoint of isolated strokes then reverse acceleration back to the initial rhythmic continuum was executed with a formidable unanimity by Royal Birmingham Conservatoire students, even if the need to keep listeners at a remove from the drums at the rear of the auditorium rather compromised social distancing.

That said, the piece was likely a revelation to those who know JLA only through his recent (and rightly acclaimed) orchestral works and concluded this recital in unequivocal fashion. Centre Stage resumes on January 21st with an all-Poulenc programme including the Sextet.

Further information on future CBSO Stage concerts can be found here

In concert – Stephen Hough, CBSO / Edward Gardner: Saint-Saëns, Mazzoli & Debussy

hough-gardiner

Stephen Hough (piano), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra / Edward Gardner

Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto no.4 in C minor Op. 44 (1875)
Mazzoli Violent, Violent Sea (2011)
Debussy La Mer L109 (1903-05)

Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Wednesday 19 May 2pm

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It may have been almost six months since the City of Birmingham Symphony last played to live audiences, but the frisson of expectation was palpable as the orchestra gradually took the stage for this first of nine concerts that, at around an hour’s duration, are being heard at 2pm then again at 6.30. The design of Symphony Hall’s platform makes it possible, moreover, to take out the raised platforms and so accommodate a larger number of musicians than would otherwise be possible in what is (hopefully!) a transitional period out of lockdown. Current restrictions still entail the spreading out of listeners, a small price to pay given the quality of acoustic at almost any point in this auditorium, while the rapid entry and exit procedures also enabled punters to assess the remodelled catering areas in advance of their June reopening.

As conducted by Edward Gardner, this programme featured works by two French composers with more in common than either could have suspected. Saint-Saëns nearly always brings out the best in Stephen Hough, and so it proved in this regrettably rare revival of the Fourth Piano Concerto. Its four sections grouped into two movements (a design the composer returned to a decade on with greater panache if less subtlety in his Third Symphony), the piece touches on aspects of sonata, variation and rondo procedures while its plain-spun material is developed in various and intriguing ways. This plus the close integration of soloist and orchestra often makes for a sinfonia concertante than concerto per se, yet there is no lack of virtuosity such as Hough despatched with alacrity – not least the cascading passagework in the final Allegro.

Saint-Saëns and Debussy evinced no mutual esteem, but as the former integrated symphonic elements into his concerto, so did the latter in his ‘three symphonic sketches’ which comprise La Mer. Here the CBSO came into its own, not least in the purposefully contrasted sequence of From Dawn to Midday on the Sea with its crepuscular writing for solo wind and divided strings through to a climactic chorale of visceral immediacy. Perhaps interplay of timbre and texture in Games of the Waves could have been more deftly handled, but Gardner exerted a firm grip over its course then drew real pathos from the final bars. He also found a persuasive balance between the volatile and poetic aspects in Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea, while maintaining steady momentum as issued forth in the chorale on its proudly affirmative return.

Between these works, Violent, Violent Sea by the highly regarded American composer Missy Mazzoli elicited a wholly different response as to its marine concept. Here it is the constant yet rarely insistent melding of translucent harmonies and pulsating rhythms (stemming from marimba and vibraphone) as underpin this music; the sustaining of whose atmosphere is the keener for its succinct duration. The ranging of its relatively modest forces across the extent of the platform also made for rather greater impact than might otherwise have been the case. It certainly added to the attractions of a programme which launched this series of concerts in impressive fashion. The CBSO returns next Wednesday with Nicholas Collon at the helm for a sequence that ends with the uncompromising defiance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony.

For further information about the CBSO’s current series of concerts, head to the orchestra’s website

For further information about Missy Mazzoli, click here