Archive for November, 2009

Colin Currie and St. Louis Symphony

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

On Saturday I heard the St. Louis Symphony’s concert with British percussionist, Colin Currie. Currie performed two concertos by Chinese-American composers- Tan Dun and Bright Sheng. It was fascinating to hear these two works back-to-back, since the two composers have such different approaches to their music. Both men use a hybrid style of Chinese and Western influences, but it takes them in two contrasting directions.

Tan Dun’s Water Concerto was full of new and unique colors- most notably those created by numerable objects being played in water (or the water itself) and an instrument that I assume is of Chinese origin (unnamed in the program-shame on the program!). But Dun also uses the western instruments of the orchestra in new ways, having wind players play on mouthpieces only, brass players drumming on leadpipes, and high effects in the strings. This made for an extremely colorful work with novel and interesting sounds. (When someone who’s been playing in orchestras for 20 years is looking around frantically, trying to figure out where that sound came from, you know something novel is going on.) However, musically this work was a little less interesting. I felt like certain cliche “Chinese themes” kept popping up, so melodically the work wasn’t as engaging. It felt more like a movie soundtrack than a concert orchestral work in that regard. And to be fair, Tan Dun wrote the great soundtrack to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He’s good at soundtrack music, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The main attraction was watching Currie (an attractive man himself) and the two SLSO percussionists playing in the water, making novel sounds, and seeing what they would do next. (What’s the sieve for? What is he going to do with that long tube and the ping pong paddle?)Overall, I enjoyed the work. It opened my ears, made me consider the musical possibilities of water, and was entertaining to watch.

(I didn’t get the chance to interview Currie, but here’s what I would have asked him– How do you hold on to your drumsticks with wet hands? Do you have to travel with your own water bowls? Or the 5 octave marimba? What is the name of the cool metal instrument with the tines and cool asian sounds? Is it harder to predict when a bowl of water will sound than with a traditional percussion instrument? Does it hurt your feelings to have to be separated from the rest of the orchestra by plexiglass? Did you feel like you were in Star Trek Next Generation when you had to keep tugging the cool red shirt you wore for Colors of Crimson?)

Bright Sheng’s work (Colors of Crimson) was completely different. It was a work for marimba and orchestra, and in more of a western style with some Chinese elements- rather than the other way around as it was with Tan Dun. It was more of what I expected of a “new” piece. It had some nice contrasts of mood, some nice colors (not nearly as exciting as Dun’s), some challenging and athletic playing required for the soloist, but little to stick in my mind the next day or make me want to go back for a second listen. It was well-crafted and pleasant. In the immortal words of Douglas Adams- mostly harmless.

I don’t want to neglect to mention that the two non-percussion works on the program were excellent. Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale and Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin Suite were excellent choices to bookend this Chinese themed program. The orchestra did a great job of playing with fire and passion, and delicacy. There were many excellent principal solos (clarinet, english horn, the trombone gliss), but my absolute favorite of the night was Susan Slaughter’s beautiful trumpet melodies in the Stravinsky. She melted my heart with her warm sound and lyrical playing. I felt sad when she left the stage for the Tan Dun (don’t leave, I want to hear more!).

I thought this program was yet another excellent example of David Robertson’s very thoughtful programming. The juxtaposition of these Chinese-inspired and Chinese composers’ works was ear-opening. It was also smart to put new works with more familiar ones (although not TOO familiar). A minor complaint may be that it was a smidge too long, especially with all the scene changes required for the percussion works. But I definitely felt that I got my money’s worth.

My best wishes to the musicians as they head to Carnegie Hall. Show those New Yorkers that we Midwesterners are a force to be reckoned with!

Here’s a link to the NY Times review of the Carnegie Concert- sounds like they did a great job