Timpani concerto makes the strongest impact at New World’s concert of world premieres

By Lawrence Budmen

David Herbert was the soloist in Alex Orfaly's Divertissement No. 2 for timpani, premiered by the New World Symphony Friday night.

The New World Symphony drew an enthusiastic audience of South Beach hipsters, patrons and the artistically curious Friday night for a boundary-pushing program of new works that exploited the full resources of Frank Gehry’s New World Center.

Among the new compositions, the clear winner  was Divertissement No. 2 for solo timpani  by Alex Orfaly. A Boston-based freelance percussionist, Orfaly was a former New World fellow. In addition to two traditional percussion instruments, the solo role also utilizes nine tenor timpani, which extend the instrument’s range  and were tuned to the octatonic scale used by Bartok and Stravinsky in which notes alternate between whole and half steps. These innovations allow the timpani to emerge anew as a melodic instrument. Orfaly’s colorful scoring features a 16-piece ensemble with a large percussion battery, winds, brass, piano, synthesizer and electric bass.

After an ominous opening, a jazzy interlude spotlights a virtuosic, big band saxophone solo, played with dazzling agility and panache by Daniel Graser. A Latin jazz melody in the Leonard Bernstein manner sets up the full-throttle finale, the repetitive riffs worthy of Steve Reich with an electric bass guitar in rock mode.

Orfaly’s rhythmic ingenuity and sense of instrumental color are striking. This work is tremendously entertaining and a major addition to the solo literature for the instrument. All that is needed is a percussionist who can actually play the daunting solo part.

David Herbert, principal timpanist of the San Francisco Symphony, helped develop the tenor timpani and collaborated with Orfaly in creating the score. Herbert’s performance was terrific in terms of the sheer variety of tones, pitches and melodies he drew from his normally percussive instruments. Whether riffing at incredible speed or sketching a thematic thread, Herbert was the absolute master of the timpani.  Joshua Gersen led the crack ensemble in a crisp performance. The cheering ovation for composer, soloist and conductor was richly deserved.

Two chamber scores proved diverting. Amy Beth Kirsten’s tongue-in-cheek string quartet Little Alice is based on the composer’s favorite frightening childhood tales.  A common melody is played lyrically, energetically and deconstructed, the low string instruments assuming prominent roles. On Floating Bodies by Marcos Balter is a sparkling two-movement wind octet, a rumination on water and waves surrounding Miami. Idiomatically written for an ensemble that includes trombone and tuba, the score is vital and lively.

Drift and Providence by Samuel Carl Adams proved less successful. Scored for large orchestra, the work prominently features two percussionists on the ancillary stages above the orchestra playing cymbals and snare drums. Computer-processed sound of their parts becomes part of the instrumental fabric, the plan of which is more interesting than the work itself. While Adams exploits the timbral and coloristic potential of the instrumental choirs, his score sounds like a film soundtrack, albeit a skillful one that lacks a distinctive musical personality. Conducting without baton, Michael Tilson Thomas led a vibrant performance that showed the work in its brightest light.

The program also included an excerpt from the film Street, an ode to the streets of New York by James Nares, and some rather portentous ruminations on birth, life and faith read by poet Malachi Black.

Posted in Performances

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Sat Apr 21, 2012
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