Four virtuoso percussionists collaborated with the Oregon Symphony to create a phenomenally exciting world premiere performance of Drum Circles by American composer Christopher Theofanidis on Monday evening (March 11) at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The foursome (Ji Hye Jung, Matthew Keown, Svet Stoyanov, and Sam Um), who are members of The Percussion Collective Robert Van Sice, astonishingly memorized an amount of complicated music, involving a large array of percussion instruments arranged in front of the orchestra across the width of the stage and to either side of Music Director Carlos Kalmar. Their dramatic and compelling performance was a truly memorable experience.
Robert van Sice is a world-renown percussionist and marimba player who teaches at the Curtis Institute. He recently founded The Percussion Collective Robert Van Sice, which consists of top-tier percussionists, and they were perfect for Drum Circles. The piece, co-commissioned by the Oregon Symphony, the Aspen Music Festival, the Baltimore Symphony, and the Colorado Symphony, consists of five movements with evocative titles, such as “Sparks and chants” and “Three chords and truth.”
According to Robert McBride, who interviewed Theofanidis before the performance, Jung, Keown, Stoyanov, and Um worked with the composer, using email, phone calls, and a quartet video rehearsal while the piece was being written, but the five of them never worked on it in-person until they arrived in Portland. Wow!
The first movement, “Rivers and anthems,” opened strongly with a wild series of tones on the marimbas that were supported by a driving beat from the bass drum (Niel Deponte) and timpani (Jonathan Greeney) and drum set (Michael Roberts). The dazzling array of tones and overtones transitioned to a celestial sonic cloud from the vibraphones and cymbals. Melodic lines seemed to overlay each other as if in a dream.
The second movement, “Sparks and chants,” began with single pulses from the soloists, which suggested a bit of tension just before catching fire and taking off. The strings picked up the thread, which, at one point, seemed to throw out a question (if music can do that). Later a broad trumpet fanfare faded away, and we were left again with single percussive notes.
The third movement (“How can you smile when you’re deep in thought?”), offered a series of humorous strokes from a typewriter before the music accelerated into a veritable blitz of sounds and deft interplay between the soloists.
The fourth movement, “Spirits and drums,” provided an echo-like exchange between the orchestra’s percussionists and the soloists. The back and forth exchange suggested a warpath accompanied by deep, serious chords from cellos and bass violins.
The final movement, “Three chords and truth,” returned to a more melodic direction that reminded me of a Renaissance style with shimmering cymbals. Somewhere along the way, all four soloists had to play exactly the same notes at the same time in a way that was sort of random. They did so by watching each other extremely carefully… and it was like a mind-meld.
After the piece ended, the audience erupted with cheers and enthusiastic applause. Jung, Keown, Stoyanov, and Um returned several times and responded with a lovely encore based on a tango by Astor Piazzola.
The other pieces on the concert were also played exceptionally well. After intermission, Sarah Kwak gave an exquisite interpretation of Vaughn Williams’s The Lark Ascending. The lyrical music evoked images of an idyllic setting where the bird would sing before taking flight. The strings fashioned gentle waves and the woodwinds and French horns complimented the bucolic atmosphere perfectly.
To open the concert, the orchestra delivered a crisp and vigorous interpretation of the Overture to Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. Yet, because the musicians were located further back on the stage (behind the massive number of percussion instruments), some of the sound was less present.
The concert concluded with Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony (Italian). The joyous opening was light but not fluffy, highlighted by the tremendous woodwind section. One of the bass violinists must have broken a string, because he quietly exited with his instrument right after the first movement. The bass violins played added just a bit more volume and the rest of the piece went along as if nothing was amiss at all. The dynamics and pace were fresh and inspiring until the final notes. It was a marvelous performance of a great masterpiece.