PORTLAND, Ore. — Concertgoers were handed bottles of water as they entered the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall for the Oregon Symphony concert on April 29 because the air conditioning was on the fritz. The orchestra, sporting short sleeves, brought water canteens onstage where it must have been toasty under the lights. No matter, they were primed to play Andy Akiho’s Beneath Lighted Coffers for steel pan and orchestra. So the concert scene might have looked equally at home in Trinidad, which is where a lot of these drum-like instruments are made.
Akiho, 44, became fascinated with the steel pan while studying music at the University of South Carolina. He traveled to Trinidad, where he became involved with steel pan ensembles and honed his virtuosic technique. Later, at the Manhattan School of Music, he earned a master’s in contemporary performance in percussion and followed it with a master’s in composition from Yale University. Numerous accolades for his steel pan compositions include three Grammy nominations. He is currently the Oregon Symphony’s composer-in-residence and a member of its Creative Alliance.
Commissioned by the National Symphony, Akiho wrote Beneath Lighted Coffers in 2014-2015 after he won the Luciano Berio Rome Prize. During his time in Rome, he became mesmerized by the Pantheon, the iconic temple that was built in 126 A.D. Its coffered dome, measuring 142 feet in diameter and 142 feet from the top to the marble floor below, is the largest unsupported concrete structure in the world.
Inspired by the Pantheon’s unique architecture and history – it houses the tombs of Arcangelo Corelli, Raphael, and some Italian royalty – Akiho composed Beneath Lighted Coffers for full orchestra and a single steel pan for the soloist. It takes about 30 minutes to perform and has five movements: “Portico,” “Twenty Eight,” “Oculus,” “Corelli,” and “Permanence.”
Displaying mind-boggling speed and impeccable control, Akiho generated hypnotic melodic lines with a variety of captivating timbres. In Portico,” he began with a repetitive pattern that was crystalline yet warm. His steady stream of notes was augmented by various statements from the orchestra that included punchy accents, string pizzicatos, raspy echoes, and bleating brass that faded in and out.
Referring to the five concentric rows of twenty-eight coffers on the inside of the dome, the second movement began with a big blast from the orchestra that dissolved into a sonic blur before Akiho joined in. Wielding a different set of mallets to create a thinner and more hollow sound, he created a series of tones that became more rhythmically demonstrative before ending suddenly, leaving a trail of shimmering overtones.
For “Oculus,” (the opening at the top of the dome), Akiho used another set of mallets with two in each hand to paint a gentle, slow-moving scene. He generated a constant tremolo accompanied by the soft sound of bows gliding along the side of a vibraphone and sustained chords from the strings. The final measures concluded with a lovely, lithe duet featuring the steel pan and harp.
With dreadlock brushes, Akiho fashioned a snappy and scrappy sonic space for the “Corelli” movement. The orchestra supported him with angular sounds that had a harder edge, and the brief movement ended with a sudden thump.
The “Permanence” movement offered a series of light, flickering sounds, followed by energetic exchanges between Akiho and the orchestra. An unsettled phase that featured soothing strings and the bleating of brass was interrupted by slaps and smacks from all over. Akiho propelled the piece forward with a continuous series of bell-like tones, and together the entire ensemble crossed the finish line with gusto.
Akiho excelled in writing the piece so that the steel pan was never drowned out by the orchestra. Even in the most forte sections, it felt as if the steel pan blended into the sonic collage like an equal player. Music director David Danzmayr expertly conducted the many tricky entrances for the orchestra, which played spot-on throughout the piece.
For the second half of the concert, the orchestra gave a thrilling performance of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 (The Great). Danzmayr urged the musicians with a variety of gestures that sculpted the piece superbly. Attention to dynamics started from the get-go with bold crescendos and delicious decrescendos, sometimes with phrases that tapered ever so slightly. The lower strings made the most of their moments to shine, like when they took over the melodic line in the second movement. The waltz of the third movement moved the conductor to dance on the podium. Plenty of dynamic contrast enhanced the noble sentiment of the fourth so that it stayed lively and never bogged down.