New World Percussion Consort offers an inspiring array of music

By David Fleshler

Duo-pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton performed with the New World Percussion Consort Sunday night.

Duo-pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton performed with the New World Percussion Consort Sunday night.

For some skeptics, attending a concert devoted to percussion instruments may sound like spending an evening at an auto parts factory.

But the skill of the performers from the New World Symphony and the ingenuity of the composers made for a fascinating musical experience Sunday evening at New World Center in Miami Beach.

The music performed by the New World Percussion Consort ranged from the pounding brutality of Iannis Xenakis’ “Skins” to the subtle, bell-like tones of Paul Lansky’s Textures, displaying the vast range of capabilities and variety of sounds from struck instruments.

It’s always inspiring to see the eighty members of an orchestra play music of fantastic complexity with perfect coordination. Yet there was something even more impressive in how a small group of percussionists handled their instruments. The music was almost all fast, with complex rhythms. The frequent requirements for musicians to switch instruments quickly were all brought off with the crackling drive and precision that was essential to the effectiveness of these works.

The concert opened with Observations by Tristan Perich, an electronic music specialist who lives in New York. For this 2008 work, New World members Matthew Howard and Stephen Kehner took posts facing each other at instruments called crotales, sets of small, tuned brass disks that are struck with a mallet. Arranged in a semi-circle around the two percussionists were their musical partners for the evening – six speakers that would deliver electronic beeps according to a program created by the composer.

They began striking the instruments at a rapid patter that continued through the work, a procession of bright, jovial harmonies.  They played a continuous pattern that changed gradually under their relentless hammering, delivering an upbeat soundtrack to the computer age.

After the joyous sounds of Perich’s work, Xenakis’ 1978 work “Skins,” from a larger percussion piece called Pleiades, made an effective, if jarring, contrast. Played by six musicians, the work is scored only for drums of various sorts, bongos, congas, bass drums and timpani. After a thumping opening flourish, the composition races forward on sheer, propulsive momentum, with question-and-response passages between drums at the bass and treble ends of the scale, savage drum poundings, an effective crescendo and menacing drum rolls – all brought off with virtuoso precision and uncivilized gusto by the six drummers.

Musicians have long debated whether the piano counts as a percussion instrument, since it operates by means of hammers striking strings. This evening, it was placed decisively in the same family as the snare drum, timpani and vibraphone, as the New World musicians were joined by the pianists Christina and Michelle Naughton, identical twins who graduated from Curtis and Juilliard and now tour as duo pianists.

They performed Paul Lansky’s Textures with two New World percussionists, Bradley Loudis and Daniel Morris, playing marimba, glockenspiel, vibraphone, bongos, wood blocks, tam-tam, slats, crotales, metal plates and cymbals.

Lansky, a recently retired composition professor at Princeton, achieved notice outside the world of contemporary classical music when the English rock band Radiohead sampled one of his computer music works in their 2000 song “Idioteque.”

In Textures, he did little to take advantage of the harmonic capabilities of the pianos, treating them more like keyboard-operated xylophones. Yet this had the effect of meeting the percussion instruments in the middle. The percussion instruments showed their softer side—with the exception of a few woodblock passages – with eerie tones from marimba and glockenspiel, and moody melodies on the vibraphone.

This approachable work consisted of eight short movements, brief explorations of sensibility and texture, suffused with grace, harmonic ambiguity and a softly glowing, moonlight mood. In the skillful hands of the two sisters, identically dressed in black, the pianos provided much of the turbulence, with rapid passages rolling through the work, framed by the textures created by the percussion instruments.

Each section had a distinct feel – urgent but graceful in the opening “Striations” movement, chaotic and frantic in the quick figurations of “Loose Ends,” hard-driving in “Points of Light,” otherworldly in the spooky procession of chords in the “Aflutter, On Edge” movement.

Concerts devoted solely to percussion works may be rarities, but the New World Percussion Consort’s performance Sunday night showed that they can be a rich and rewarding musical experience.

Posted in Performances

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Mon Nov 2, 2015
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