Review: Schwantner's Percussion Concerto

Guest conductor Hans Graf

Hilbert Circle Theatre; Nov. 11-12

Joseph Schwantner, 68, has always

been a far better than average contemporary composer. In the early 1980s, I

attended Terre Haute's ISU Contemporary Music Festival, and heard two works of

his played by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra which I still remember: New Morning for the World: "Daybreak of Freedom," with a text by Martin Luther King Jr.,

and From a Dark Millennium, a purely orchestral work

which featured ominous drums and enchanting harmonies accompanying some player vocalise.

On Friday, under guest conductor Hans Graf, the

ISO gave us the performance debut of a brand new work, Schwantner's

three-movement Percussion Concerto II - a splendidly crafted composition from

start to finish. As we've experienced with two or three percussion concertos in the

previous decade, this one followed the formula of featuring a very large

percussion battery, mostly on an extended stage apron in front of everybody. It

differed, however, in using the orchestra's own four percussionists rather than

engaging an outsider: principal Braham Denbar, veteran Paul Berns, Craig Hetrick and

timpanist Jack Brennan.

This has, by far, been the best new

percussion concerto I've heard. Schwantner plays by the rules of good

composition in allowing all his resources to be heard when they have something

to say. Though the various pounding instruments -- drums of all sizes, including

brake drums and plastic buckets -- make the most noise, the strings, winds,

brass and horns all shine forth when they are meant to. There are particularly

affecting displays by Rebecca Price Arrensen's piccolo, done masterfully--along

with the English horn and bass clarinet. In the second movement, the mallet

instruments dominate with xylophone, marimbas, vibraphone and various chimes,

bells and a waterphone which sounds when tilted, not struck.

While the three movements display, to a

degree, the characteristic loud-soft-loud structure, the third movement becomes

a jam session for three inverted plastic buckets, with our three principals each taking

his turn pounding, with all sitting on their "instruments." Our timpanist got in a

few licks as well. Interestingly the mezzanine audience leaned forward en masse

to better see the bucket brigade, located farthest front on the apron

extension. Graf and company got a standing ovation which was borderline

explosive, with Schwantner on stage to share in the accolades.

Graf began with a surprisingly tonal,

Romantic work of that notorious serialist, Anton Webern: Im Sommerwind, Idyll for Orchestra, written in 1904 when the

composer was 19. Its key signature appeared to be D major, and could have been

the harbinger of a unique post-Romantic style, had Webern not come under the

influence of Arnold Schoenberg. Though his inspiration was hardly first-rate,

he excelled in bringing out solo instruments in a manner differing from the

concurrent symphony-writing Mahler, yet resembling the latter in other ways.

The big final work, Strauss's long, occasionally

bombastic tone poem Ein Heldenleben

(A Hero's Life, 1898), Op. 40, seemed a bit anticlimactic after the Schwantner experience,

though Graf gave its six continuous sections a well conceived forward thrust. In

section three, "The Hero's Companion," concertmaster Zach de Pue maintained his

high playing caliber in the extensive solo violin writing. However, in section four,

"The Hero's Battlefield," some of the textures were

muddy, with a lack of complete unanimity among the ensembles. This reading was

nowhere near the high level of former ISO music director Mario Venzago's Heldenleben of Sept. 2006.