Concert Notes

Evelyn Glennie!

Percussion Concerto
Jennifer Higdon
b. Brooklyn, New York, USA / December 31, 1962

Jennifer Higdon is a major figure in contemporary classical music, receiving the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for her Violin Concerto. She enjoys several hundred performances a year of her works, with blue cathedral (2000) alone receiving more than 600 performances worldwide. Her works have been recorded on over four dozen CDs. Among her recent creations is an opera based on the best-selling novel, Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier. 

She has written the following introduction to the Grammy-winning Percussion Concerto.

The twentieth century saw the percussion section grow as no other section in the orchestra. Both the music and the performers grew in visibility as well as in capability. And while the form of the concerto wasn’t the least bit new in the century, the appearance and growth of the percussion concerto as a genre exploded during the later half of the century.

My Percussion Concerto of 2005 follows the normal relationship of a dialogue between soloist and orchestra. In this work, however, there is an additional relationship with the soloist interacting extensively with the percussion section. The ability of performers has grown to such an extent that it has become possible to have sections within the orchestra interact at the same level as the soloist.

When writing a concerto I think of two things: the particular soloist for whom I am writing and the nature of the solo instrument. In the case of percussion, this means a large battery of instruments, from vibraphone and marimba (the favourite instrument of soloist Colin Currie), to non-pitched smaller instruments (brake drum, wood blocks, Peking Opera gong), and to the drums themselves. Not only does a percussionist have to perfect playing all of these instruments, but he must make hundreds of decisions regarding the use of sticks and mallets, as there is an infinite variety of possibilities from which to choose. Not to mention the choreography of the movement of the player; where most performers do not have to concern themselves with movement across the stage during a performance, a percussion soloist must have every move memorized. No other instrumentalist has such a large number of variables to challenge and master.

This work begins with the sound of the marimba, as Colin early on informed me that he has a fondness for this instrument. I wanted the opening to be exquisitely quiet and serene, with the focus on the soloist. Then the percussion section enters, mimicking the gestures of the soloist. Only after this dialogue is established does the orchestra enter. There is significant interplay between the soloist and the orchestra with a fairly beefy accompaniment in the orchestral part, but at various times the music comes back down to the sound of the soloist and the percussion section playing together, without orchestra.

Eventually, the music moves through a slow lyrical section, which requires simultaneous bowing and mallet playing by the soloist, and then a return to the fast section, where a cadenza ensues with both the soloist and the percussion section. A dramatic close to the cadenza leads back to the orchestra’s opening material and the eventual conclusion of the work. Written for Colin Currie, this work is dedicated to him. 

Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Op. 93
Dmitri Shostakovich
b. St. Petersburg, Russia / September 25, 1906;
d. Moscow, Russia / August 9, 1975

Shostakovich spent many of his most productive years under the oppressive regime of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Following Stalin’s death in 1953, Shostakovich quickly set to work on a new symphony, his first in eight years. The debate over its merits, which was eventually resolved in his favour, played a role in the reinstatement of increased artistic expression in the USSR. 

When he was asked if it had a program, he replied, “No, let them listen and guess for themselves,” adding that he wanted simply “to portray human emotions and passions.” In Testimony, the controversial book of memoirs that was published in 1979, he gave quite a different account, stating “It’s about Stalin and the Stalin years. The second part, the scherzo, is a musical portrait of him, roughly speaking. Of course, there are other things in it, but that’s the basis.”

Opening with sober, desolate ruminations, the first movement rises to a prolonged climax of searing intensity. The music winds down slowly, to end as bleakly as it began. In the final pages, two piccolos warble forlornly as dusk falls over a battle-scarred landscape.

Harshly scored and driven by relentless, maniacal energy, the brief second movement delivers one of the most concentrated outbursts of fury in all music.

Enigmatic and unsettling, the third movement refuses to offer consolation for what has preceded it. It features a series of expressive solos for wind instruments and a bitter, ironic climax that borders on hysteria. 

The finale opens with a mournful introduction in slow tempo, once again featuring wind solos. But then clarinet and strings announce a merry dance tune, at last allowing a ray of sunlight to brighten the scene. There can be no possibility of unclouded optimism; shadowed moments crop up, and at times the rejoicing takes on an almost frenzied edge. This music does not so much celebrate the present as it expresses a wish for freer, less troubled days ahead.

Symphony No. 10 in E Minor, Op. 93
1. Moderato
2. Allegro
3. Allegretto
4. Andante – Allegro  


Programme Notes © 2017 Don Anderson

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