Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

Percussion Concerto [New York premiere]
Symphony No 3 in E flat, Op.55 (Eroica)

Colin Currie (percussion)

Philadelphia Orchestra
Christoph Eschenbach

Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski

Reviewed: 6 December, 2005
Venue: Carnegie Hall, New York City

It is rare for a new piece of classical music to elicit loud cheers, but that is what happened at this New York premiere performance of the Percussion Concerto, composed this year by the Philadelphia-based composer Jennifer Higdon. The piece was jointly commissioned by three orchestra – Philadelphia, Dallas Symphony, and the Indianapolis Symphony – and requires the soloist, the extraordinary Colin Currie, to move between two clusters of instruments spread out in front of the orchestra: marimba and vibraphone to the right of the conductor, and a drum-kit with a huge assortment of “noise” instruments – including woodblocks, gongs, a bowl, and a cowbell – to the left.

The work is scored for a standard full symphony orchestra that includes, in addition to the solo percussionist, a pianist doubling on celesta, a harpist, a timpanist, and three other percussionists. The piece, played without a break, follows the traditional fast-slow-fast pattern of a concerto, but, less typically, postpones a cadenza for the soloist until the final section. In addition to the expected interactions between the soloist and orchestra, there are stretches where the soloist exchanges with the orchestral percussion, and them with the rest of the orchestra.

In Higdon’s own note about the work, she describes the piece as “a simple thing” and goes on to say, “This is a Concerto to show the beauty and power of percussion. Nothing more and nothing less.” And this is exactly what her highly original concerto does. The solo percussionist begins the piece alone, with soft bell-like sounds at the low end of the marimba that build up and are soon answered by the percussionists at the back of the orchestra. As the music gains in intensity, the soloist is answered, spurred along and at times confronted by the orchestral percussionists, as he moves back and forth between marimba and vibraphone, or dashes over to the drum-kit for frenzied outbursts on bongos, tom-toms, cymbals and an assortment of other percussion instruments. The piece exudes non-stop energy, and in this performance the orchestra and soloist made the most of its witty moments and splashy effects. This huge, energetic piece clearly won many fans, and provided many opportunities for Colin Currie to display his extraordinary virtuosity, especially in the jazzy and vigorous cadenza performed on the drum-kit.

The concerto was followed by a fervid and sweeping performance of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony. The opening movement was briskly paced and marked by unusually emphatic accents. The somber funeral march seemed unduly labored, and the overall effect was one of ponderousness. In the scherzo Eschenbach adopted a lively and steady tempo, and the articulation was clearer. The finale was similarly brisk and urgent, yet string textures remained transparent, as the music romped along to an exhilarating conclusion.

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