Percussion Takes Center Stage, And More, In Concerto

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Chicago Symphony principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh performing Avner Dorman’s ‘Eternal Rhythm.’
(Photos by Todd Rosenberg)
By Kyle MacMillan

CHICAGO – Israeli-born composer Avner Dorman has made percussion something of a specialty, taking advantage of his time in a rock band and information he gleaned as a college student from friends who were percussionists. In addition to other small works in this realm, he has written three percussion concertos, including his latest, Eternal Rhythm, which received its American premiere during Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts Oct. 3-5 led by guest conductor James Gaffigan. (Reviewed here is the Oct. 4 performance.)

In his program notes for the concerto, which was commissioned by the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchester in Hamburg, Germany, and the George Enescu Festival in Bucharest, Romania, the 44-year-old composer writes that rhythm is a fundamental aspect of music and essential sign of life. “Without a pulse, we cannot live,” he writes. “Without pulsation and repetitive motion, the physical world cannot exist. To the best of our knowledge, the universe began with a large impulse, and the resulting oscillations, pulses and beats are what we experience – an Eternal Rhythm that stretches from the beginning of time in perpetuity.”

CSO percussionist Cynthia Yeh moved through an arc of instrument clusters as Dorman’s concerto progressed.

Several aspects of this work, which runs about 25 minutes, set it apart, starting with its unusual five-movement structure, which allows for considerable variations in mood and color. Unlike some percussion concertos that feature an overblown variety of instruments and make a point of including the exotic and unexpected, Dorman kept his selection reasonably modest and almost all of it standard. His only deviation from the conventional was a half dozen or so of what he calls “tin cans” in the score but looked on stage to be upside-down metal pots and bowls that provided a dull clanging sound when struck.

Dorman created three fascinating groups of instruments in his writing for the soloist, starting with a combination of glockenspiel and crotales – tuned bronze or brass disks about 4 inches in diameter arranged on a rack horizontally. Because hard mallets are used to strike metal disks or bars with both of these instruments, they generate similarly penetrating, ringing tones that provided a compelling, other-worldly mix when played side by side. Similarly complementary effects were achieved with the pairing of the vibraphone and adjacent melodic tom-toms and the largest and most complex set of instruments – timpani, tuned tom-toms, and the metal pots and bowls. Rounding out the array was the marimba. The solo instruments were grouped in a horseshoe shape around the podium, with the soloist moving to each station as needed.

Adding yet another dimension to the sound colors in this work were more percussion instruments in the orchestra, including many of the same ones being played by the soloist. This allowed for dialogues among these instruments as well as some intriguing, at times strange echo effects heard virtually from the beginning of the work with the orchestral percussionist entering seven bars in on the glockenspiel as the soloist played the crotales. Some bars later, the two were engaged in a dialogue between the marimba and vibraphone. And still later in the first movement, the soloist on the tom-toms was backed in the orchestra by the timpanist and the orchestral percussionist on tambourine, along with the rest of the orchestra.

Composer Avner Dorman, conductor James Gaffigan, and percussionist Cynthia Yeh taking bows.

Eternal Rhythm checks off many boxes. It is an engaging, well-integrated, and well-crafted work with an unstoppable sense of forward momentum as it proceeds uninterrupted through its five movements. Moods and sound colors shift constantly as the soloist switches instruments, different parts of the orchestra come into play, and tempos as well as dynamics change. It is variously mysterious, reflective, exuberant, and even jazzy at times, concluding with a kinetic fifth movement containing roller-coaster runs for the strings and galloping passages for the soloist on marimba and tom-toms.

Indeed, the work is a first-rate showpiece for the soloist, and the orchestra’s masterful principal percussionist, Cynthia Yeh, made the most of it. Unflappable and undaunted, she handled every challenge this work threw at her with seeming ease, delivering a virtuosic and captivating performance. And Gaffigan made sure the orchestra was right there with her, ably supporting and augmenting everything she was doing.

Gaffigan, 40, is one of those steadily rising conductors who seems more poised than ever to head one of the world’s top orchestras. The New York native has been a regular presence in Chicago in recent years, guest conducting with the Chicago Symphony, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Grant Park Music Festival, and he has brought the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra twice to the Ravinia Festival. He has served as chief conductor of that Swiss ensemble since 2011.

To understand the buzz around Gaffigan, one needed only to experience his taut, intense second-half take on Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 in C minor, in which he potently captured both the work’s emotional depth and its ceaseless ambiguity. Unlike the composer’s other World War II symphony, No. 7 (“Leningrad”), which was inspired by the dire conditions during the siege of Leningrad and the thousands of Russians who lost their lives in that horrific event, the Eighth Symphony has no specific subject and makes no definite statement. Instead, the composer seems intent on plunging the listener into the ugly chaos of war with all its conflicting emotions and relentless unanswerable questions of life and death.

The Chicago Symphony performing Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 under James Gaffigan

The structural outline of the Eighth Symphony is unusual – a massive first movement, a short scherzo movement, and then three final movements that run together and form the longest section of the work. There are challenges aplenty, starting with the need to realize Shostakovich’s unique brand of ugly beauty, which offsets plaintive lines and soft pleas with equal doses of dulling hollowness and hard edges. Gaffigan and the orchestra met them with expressiveness, urgency, and explosiveness.

The highlight was arguably the relentless first movement, with its ever-changing moods swinging from quiet ruminations and introspective high strings to loud blasts of repeating motifs in the basses and almost unbearable high-pitched chords. The section reaches a terrifying climax with pounding drums giving way to a lonely, plaintive, and arguably redemptive English horn solo compellingly conveyed by Scott Hostetler. Gaffigan shaped it all with well-calibrated contrasts in tempos and dynamics, delicately rendering the soft, inward-looking moments and infusing the surging build-ups with maximum power and drive.

Kyle MacMillan served as the classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music, and Early Music America.

James Gaffigan conducting the Chicago Symphony: Their Shostakovich Eighth was expressive, urgent, explosive.