San Antonio Rocks With Copeland’s Trap Set Concerto

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Rock drummer and composer Stewart Copeland was soloist in his own 'The Tyrant's Crush' concerto with the San Antonio Symphony and music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing in the Tobin Center for the Performing arts. (Photo: Annette Paulin)
Rock drummer and composer Stewart Copeland was soloist in his own ‘The Tyrant’s Crush’ concerto with the San Antonio Symphony and music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing. (Photo: Annette Paulin)
By Mike Greenberg

SAN ANTONIO — What happens when you bring together the vital, exciting, diverse, American-born rock music tradition and the vital, exciting, diverse, American-bred branch of the classical symphonic tradition? Well, most often the result of that chemical reaction has been a dud known as “crossover.”

Stewart Copeland was in constant motion in 'The Tyrant's crush.' (Annette Paulin)
Copeland was in constant motion in ‘The Tyrant’s Crush.’ (Annette Paulin)

But if anyone from the rock side of that reaction is equipped to make it work, Stewart Copeland would seem a likely candidate. The immensely talented and charismatic drummer first came to the world’s attention in the late 1970s as a member of the English rock group The Police, and his musical ambitions eventually expanded to include scores for ballet, opera, film, and television, and chamber music. In recent years, he’s been drawn to the symphony orchestra.

One year ago, the San Antonio Symphony and music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing collaborated with the D’Drum percussion ensemble of Dallas in Copeland’s Gamelan D’Drum, dating from 2010. Copeland didn’t play in that performance, but he visited to oversee rehearsals and struck up a friendship with Lang-Lessing. When a guest slot for the present season opened up unexpectedly, the conductor turned to Copeland. He had been the soloist in his own The Tyrant’s Crush concerto for trap set and orchestra in its Pittsburgh Symphony world premiere last February. He reprised the work with Lang-Lessing and the San Antonio Symphony on Nov. 4 in the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

Sebastian Lang-Lessing conducted the San Antonio Symphony with drummer Stewart Copeland. (Annette Paulin)
Sebastian Lang-Lessing conducted the San Antonio Symphony. (Annette Paulin)

The Tyrant’s Crush is a vaguely programmatic work, intended (in Copeland’s telling) to suggest the unfortunate transformation of a populist revolutionary into a despot. The first two movements are revised versions of earlier works; the finale is new.

As one might expect, the score assigns most of the heavy lifting to the percussion — not just to the soloist, but also to four busy orchestral percussionists, who contribute much of the work’s color. In this performance, the five percussionists were arrayed across a platform at the rear of the shell. Copeland, in the middle, was a marvel of blazing excitement and, sometimes, velvet subtlety. His idiom in his solo work was unashamedly rock, but he stretched and explored it in ways that held the attention. He was indefatigable, seldom giving his drums and cymbals a rest, and he was a magnetic, animated presence, even in his brief silences.

Copeland and Lang-Lessing posed outside the Tobin Center. (Kelley Kendall)
Copeland and Lang-Lessing posed outside the Tobin Center. (Kelley Kendall)

Musically, the most interesting movement is the middle one, intriguingly titled “Monster Just Needed Love (But Ate the Children Anyway).” Opening with a pastoral introit for English horn and an attractive halo of strings, it is a passacaglia on a brief long-short-long-short-long figure. Much of this music is fairly calm, and the orchestral textures are clear. Here and in a few passages in the noisier outer movements, a focused use of the orchestra reveals some colors and rhythmic or contrapuntal ideas that draw the listener into the music.

Too often, however, Copeland as orchestrator is like a kid in a candy shop, stuffing his mouth full of gumdrops, peanut brittle, licorice sticks, chocolate truffles, and rahat lokum, all at the same time. The result is not so much a carefully detailed wall of sound, à la Phil Spector, as a mushy swamp of sound, with now and then a flash of trumpet or a swirl of violins raising its head above the hyper-loud ooze.

Yet there is an undeniable energy to the music, and sometimes a delightful cockiness. Glissandi in the strings and a fetching solo for concertmaster Eric Gratz allude to rock guitar effects. The orchestration is an advance over the earlier Gamelan D’Drum and far more than just a parenthetical gloss on the solo role. Copeland has set forth on a promising path. Now, if only he’d exercise a little more restraint in the orchestral candy store.

Something of the sort could also be said of Franz Schmidt, who composed the concert’s opener, the Entre’acte and Carnival Music from the opera Notre Dame. The music is not without charm, but it seems to be mostly about cushily upholstered surfaces.

Speaking of cushy orchestration, the closer was Camille Saint-Saëns’ Symphony No. 3 (“Organ”). The Tobin Center is not equipped with a pipe organ — an electronic instrument sufficed — but it is equipped with splendid natural acoustics. The hall opened in 2014, and once past several months of experimentation with seating and shell configuration, the clean, well-balanced, amply resonant sound has proved an ideal creative partner to the orchestra and Lang-Lessing. In the slow middle movement of the Saint-Saëns, the understaffed strings poured out a rich, lustrous sound that would have been unimaginable in any of the orchestra’s previous venues.

A few yards from the Tobin Center, Los TexManiacs held forth at a street dance.
A few yards from the Tobin Center, Los TexManiacs held forth at a street dance.

Coda: Heading back to my car after the concert, I found Los TexManiacs, a widely acclaimed conjunto band based in San Antonio, playing for a free dance in the Havana Hotel parking lot, just across a narrow street from the Tobin Center. Led by bajo sexto master Max Baca, Los TexManiacs has developed a remarkable alloy of traditional Tex-Mex music with elements of rock and jazz. Drifting into the happy crowd to listen for a moment, I found the music crisp, vibrant, authoritative, and clear, with not a note too many or too few. The source idioms came together without a seam. Aha! Heavenly hash!

Mike Greenberg is an independent critic and photographer living in San Antonio, Tex. He is the author of The Poetics of Cities (Ohio State University Press, 1995). He was a Knight Fellow at Stanford University in 1986-87. He served as managing editor of Chicago Magazine and was a critic and columnist for a daily newspaper for 28 years.