Memphis – The Commercial Appeal – Zwilich Premiere

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The Commercial Appeal – Memphis, Tennessee

Array of percussion brings magic of the world
By Christopher Blank

March 7, 2004

The arrival of this season’s world premiere commission by the IRIS Chamber Orchestra was accompanied by one of the more eye-catching stage arrays inrecent memory.

The chamber orchestra’s percussion section, on risers at the rear of the Germantown Performing Arts Centre’s stage, looked as though exposed to Gamma radiation, the kind that makes Incredible Hulks out of average percussion consoles.

But this is the norm whenever the Nexus Percussion Ensemble is the guest artist. Nestled amid a network of exotic instruments made for singular noises, the Toronto group’s five members conjured a shellshocking new concerto called ‘Rituals’ for Percussion Ensemble and Orchestra.

Composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, the fourth to be commissioned by IRIS, presented an unusual, brash piece of new music. The collaboration between composer and soloists features sounds favored by the individual members of Nexus.

Among the more than forty instruments shipped from Canada, Bill Cahn brought his Chinese cloud gongs and spring drum. Bob Becker played glockenspiel and castanets. Robin Engelman struck Balinese cymbals and tubular bells. Russell Hartenberger shook Japanese finger bells and Garry Kvistad played temple blocks.

The instruments invited the world into GPAC, and in the five movements of Zwilich’s ‘Rituals,’ they engaged in all manner of discourse. Though the rhythms leap out in interjections of tangos, African dances and marching band flourishes, the piece easily comes off abrasive to new ears in some sections.

Zwilich begins with a movement called ‘Invocation.’ Zwilich invokes the spirits of the instruments and indeed, the first movement, has an almost religious flavor.

The second movement, ‘Ambulation,’ gives over to the drums and a plucky rhythmic intro in the cellos.

A solemn feeling returns in the third movement, ‘Remembrances,’ which brings back the gongs and bells. The final movement ‘Contests’ shows off the players’ virtuosity as they launch into battle.

On the front end of the concert, the orchestra played J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 4 Orchestra in D major.

Stern concluded with Mendelssohn’s Excerpts from the Incidental Music to Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ Going into the final piece, Stern explained that ‘the piece begins as it ends: with a little magic.’

The same magic could be heard throughout this special IRIS evening – especially in the middle.

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