The Nashville Symphony had just played the concerto's final, raucous notes when the doors of the Laura Turner Concert Hall flung open. A pair of middle-school-age boys, their hair greased into multicolored punk spikes, strolled into the lobby. Their faces burned with excitement.
"That was the most awesome thing I ever heard in my life," exclaimed one of the boys.
The proximate cause of their youthful enthusiasm was contemporary American composer Joseph Schwantner's Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra, which the symphony performed at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in February. Naxos, the Franklin-based classical label, recorded guest percussionist Christopher Lamb's awe-inspiring rendition as part of an all-Schwantner album that was released last week. The disc also includes the world-premiere recordings of Morning's Embrace and Chasing Light ....
Schwantner, a 68-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner, composed his percussion concerto in 1994 for the 150th anniversary of the New York Philharmonic. The piece has become one of the most performed contemporary concertos in the repertory. Its popularity is no doubt due to Schwantner's vivid ear for orchestral color and virtuoso treatment of percussion.
Lamb, the principal percussionist of the New York Philharmonic, basically owns this concerto, having given the work its world premiere in 1995. His new recording of the piece is electrifying. He played the concerto's opening drum motif with primal power. After that violent outburst, he switched to amplified marimba, sending forth shards of sparkling notes with effortless virtuosity.
The concerto's emotional highlight is the slow second movement, a dark-hued elegy that leaves no percussion sound unexplored. Lamb used a bevy of instruments, including vibraphone (played with both mallets and a contrabass bow), a rack of Alpine herd bells, triangles, cymbals, a set of high-octave crotales, bass drum, tenor drum and water gong, which made a delightfully surreal sound. Lamb played all these instruments with consummate skill.
He was no less impressive in the finale, which features one the most rollicking drum-set solos in the entire classical repertory. Music director Giancarlo Guerrero and the symphony provided polished and atmospheric accompaniment in all three movements.
Last year's catastrophic flood forced the symphony out of the Schermerhorn and into Ben's Studio (formerly RCA Studio A) in Nashville to record the other works on the album. Those recordings, expertly produced and engineered by Tim Handley, sound as alive as anything heard in the Schermerhorn.
In his program notes, Schwantner writes that Morning's Embrace is a sonic depiction of the intense sunrises he enjoys in rural New Hampshire. The work's opening music, however, is so dark, dramatic and urgent that one could easily imagine a sunrise on an alien planet. The New England landscape is finally called to mind in the middle section, with pastoral flute music that could have come from the pen of Vaughan Williams. Guerrero and the symphony play the piece with brilliance and flair.
Chasing Light ... is another tribute to New Hampshire sunrises. This work is a blazing musical starburst, a kaleidoscopic swirl of orchestral color, and the symphony plays it with energy and joyous emotion. It's worth noting that Chasing Light ... is the second piece commissioned by the Ford Made in America program. The program's first work, Joan Tower's Made in America, earned the symphony three Grammy Awards. That bodes well for the current recording.
Ryddle me this: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Leonardo da Vinci may have had a code. But the American composer Terry Riley actually has a riddle. The Nashville Symphony will be unraveling it at Carnegie Hall next May, when it performs Riley's Concerto for Electric Violin, which the composer has nicknamed The Palmian Chord Ryddle.
"I have finally realized the name of the concerto," Riley wrote in a recent email. "It came to me as I was waking up the other morning in a post-dream, pre-awakened state."
Nashville violinist Tracy Silverman, who will premiere the work at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center May 3 through 5, 2012, before taking it to Carnegie on May 12, says the name refers to the concerto's opening tonality, a dissonant eight-note chord spelled A, B-sharp, C-sharp, D, E-sharp, F-sharp, G-sharp and A.
"The riddle has to do with the way the chord resolves itself over the course of the concerto's 37-minute duration," says Silverman. The affected spelling of "ryddle" is intended to suggest an ancient origin for the chord.
Riley, who celebrated his 76th birthday on June 24, first came to fame in 1964 with the publication of In C, a seminal work that all but launched the minimalist movement in music and greatly influenced the likes of John Adams, Philip Glass and Steve Reich.
Silverman says the new concerto, which is still in the final compositional stages, is very spontaneous, like an improvisation, and contains many exotic modes that call to mind Indian ragas. The work is also expansive and virtuosic.
"Terry has been thinking about writing this concerto for many years, and he intends it to be a major work," says Silverman.
Riley's concerto won't be the only newsworthy American work that Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony take to Carnegie Hall next year. They will also perform a new realization of Charles Ives' Universe Symphony.
Ives, the great American maverick composer, spent the last two decades of his life working on this symphony. He left it unfinished at his death in 1954. Larry Austin, an American composer noted for his electronic and computer music, has arranged and completed the version that the symphony will play. They will close the concert with Percy Grainger's The Warriors.
The Nashville Symphony's Carnegie Hall performance is part of the annual Spring for Music festival. In case you're pondering a trip to New York City to support the home team, we've got good news: Tickets for the concert are a mere $25.
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