Wednesday, May 30, 2012

McCormick Percussion Group, Concerti for Strings with Percussion Orchestra

Works for a solo string player and percussion orchestra are hardly a standard commodity in the concert world. The McCormick Percussion Orchestra programs five of them in a recent release (Ravello 7820). I suspect none of them are headed for the standard repertoire any time soon. Then again, unless things change, only a handful of recent works will do that in the era and not always for reasons of musical merit.

Of course the modern percussion orchestra is capable of a great deal more than the ricky-tick, slap and bing-bang-boom of some of the pioneeing percussion ensemble works of the last century. The music includes tone-centered as well as sound-centered instruments, and of course even the sound-centered instruments have greater or lesser degrees of pitch depending upon tuning and manner of attack. So the percussion orchestra has all the qualities of a conventional orchestra in terms of both sound color and the possibility of pitched confluence, but with a special character, and that is shown here convincingly.

The composers and works at hand on this anthology make full use of the double character of such an orchestra.

The fit between string soloist and orchestra runs the gamut between fully integrated and contrasting (in timbres and textures). Michael Sidney Timpson's Donxidongxi, Concerto for Zheng and Percussion Orchestra perhaps has the most fluid affinities between the two, especially since the Zheng is played with a plectrum and has a more percussive sound in general.

Nonetheless, no work presented here is without interest. Baljinder Sekhon's Lou for cello and orchestra, Stuart Saunders Smith's Nightshade, for violin and percussion orchestra, David Liptak's Concerto for Viola and Percussion, Daniel Adams's Camouflage for Contrabass and Percussion Trio all have their fine moments.

There are percussion outbursts that will give pleasure to those who appreciate such things, there are sound coloristic moments and there is a world-music flavor to be heard now and again.

What counts is that none of this is music by rote. Each piece is a world unto itself. If none of them quite seem in the league of great masterpieces of the 21st century, the entire program will give you some unusual and pleasing moments.

Appreciators of large percussion ensembles that dwell in the realm of "pure" music (whatever that means, exactly) will find this a happy listen.

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