CEDAR FALLS — Audiences were treated to an evening of scintillating orchestral color and percussive intricacies at the Gallagher-Bluedorn Performing Arts Center on Saturday with a presentation of the wcfsymphony orchestra, led by Music Director and CEO Jason Weinberger.
The first half of the concert featured percussion and was the culmination of the Iowa Days of Percussion at the School of Music at the University of Northern Iowa, under the auspices of the Iowa Percussive Arts Society, all coordinated expertly by UNI percussion profs Randy Hogancamp and Matthew Andreini. Coordinated with the wcfsymphony, the festivities featured programs and clinics for area middle and high school students, as well as clinics for and programs by percussionists from other colleges.
Featured guest artists were the World Percussion Group and Maraca2. The latter, composed of British mallet players Tim Palmer and Jason Huxtable, is based in Birmingham and performs percussion works around the globe. They auditioned and selected members of the World Percussion Group, made up of young professionals in an educational and artistic internship — both ensembles presently touring the U.S.
The concert opened with an unannounced prelude — four members of the World Percussion Group performing the ballad “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” an entrancing rendition played on marimbas and bowed and struck vibraphones.
The featured work was “Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! for Percussion Duo and Orchestra," by the much honored and performed Israeli composer Avner Dorman (b. 1975), who presently teaches theory and composition in the U.S. The stage setting itself was arresting, with two banks of percussion instruments spread across the entire front of the stage for Maraca2.
As it happened, Tim Palmer, one of the two soloists in the work, was prevented by performing by illness, and an emergency search was organized to find a replacement. Audiences and orchestras alike were fortunate that the search uncovered Garrett Mendelow, finishing a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin/Madison, who was familiar with the first movement, and did a spectacular job of memorizing the entire work in three weeks, and performing it with Huxtable on the tour.
“Spices” draws on Middle Eastern scales and rhythms, and although primarily in 4/4, features constant metric change. It demands a virtuosic display by the soloists, who move rapidly from place to place on stage, with astonishing feats of memorization of the complex material.
“Perfumes” opens with mysterious alto flutes and a lyric and compelling melody in violins, but is nonetheless predominantly a study of texture and harmony. Throughout all three movements, cutting-edge musical materials that might otherwise bring discomfort to an audience are made accessible and intriguing through creative instrumentation, rhythms and the attraction through sight and sound of the percussion.
“Toxins” returns to a driving fanaticism, using a vast array of percussion and opening with essentially two rock-like drum sets in each corner. Non-stop motion and laudable unison passages pass through changing meters, though the movement is predominantly in 5/4. The work is apparently getting a lot of play around the world, and certainly makes the hearer wish to hear more of Avner Dorman. Wonderfully played by soloists and orchestra alike.
During intermission, we were treated in the lobby to an enlightening solo piece featuring an encyclopedia of techniques on a single snare drum by Ukrainian percussionist Constantyn Napolov, a member of the World Percussion Group. Never think you’ve heard all there is to be heard on this instrument … .
The closing number of the evening was the famed Suite from the "Firebird Ballet" by Igor Stravinsky. There perhaps has never been an equivalent collaboration of genius as we find in those who created the seasons of the Ballets Russes at the Paris Opera in the early years of the 20th century. Artistic director Serge Diaghilev, dancers Pavlova and Nijinsky, choreographers Fokine and Balanchine, composers Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel, artists Picasso, Miró, Dalí and Matisse, writer Jean Cocteau and designer Coco Chanel, to name but a few, gave birth to an artistic ferment that still influences us a century later.
“The Firebird” appeared on stage in 1910, with the young Stravinsky commissioned to provide the music. It is considered to show the influence of his mentor Rimsky-Korsakov, and to have one foot in the Romantic era. But it is astonishingly prophetic of what was to come as Stravinsky completed his trio of ballet masterworks with “Petroushka” in 1911 and, in 1913, “The Rite of Spring,” in which all hell broke loose.
“The Firebird” sets the Russian folktale of a magical bird that is involved with supernatural adventures with Prince Ivan. There are a number of versions of the music — Weinberger chose the 1945 edition, which includes three “pantomimes” from the ballet, and is performed with no breaks between sections. Hearing this work again reminds us of the truly new melodic invention and instrumentation evolved here by Stravinsky, as we hear the familiar Firebird’s Dance, the Pas de Deux of the Firebird and Ivan, the Dance and the Round Dance of the Princesses, Kashchei’s Infernal Dance, the heavenly Berceuse, and the stirring finale. The new music from the pantomimes was an added treat. The orchestra performed splendidly — the work is still difficult. Commendations are due to the woodwind sections for luscious sound and sparkling intonation, and to hornist Dan Malloy, but the entire orchestra triumphed, as witnessed by Weinberger’s acknowledgement of each individual section.
Thanks are due to the evening’s sponsors: VGM Forbin and Strategic Imaging, and to music sponsors Dee and Dave Vandeventer.
The orchestra’s next appearance is on April 2, when they will give two concerts in Waterloo’s Brown Derby ballroom, featuring the Orchestral Suite No. 2 and the Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 of J. S. Bach.
Thomas Tritle holds emeritus status at the School of Music of UNI, and is the former principal horn and program note writer for the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Symphony Orchestra.