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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Concert Review: Of Trash Cans, Bottles and Pipes

Sō Percussion joins Mostly Mozart for a new concerto.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
They're lumberjacks and they're OK: the men of Sō Percussion.
Photo © 2017 
Sō Percussion/Mostly Mozart Festival.
In recent years, the Mostly Mozart Festival, once the staid haven of conservative music lovers in the hot summers of New York City, has become a home for new music. On Wednesday night, the Festival Orchestra and its music director Louis Langrée were joined by Sō Percussion, a New York based quartet. This was the second of two concerts this week, featuring the premiere of man made, a new work by David Lang.



Mr. Lang came out to introduce his work, which proved to be a playful four-movement concerto for percussion section and orchestra. It explores the relationship between improvised "ready-made" percussion equipment and the elaborate drums and tuned instruments that are commonly used by a symphony orchestra. It was cast in four movements, each of them a call-and-response between the four Sō percussionists and the orchestra itself.

The opening movement started imperceptibly, with the click and clack of twigs, broken in pattern to make rhythms and memorable, if noteless figures. These were echoed by the rest of the orchestra, setting up the pattern for the three movements that followed. The Sō men stood and played bottles next, using soft rubber-headed mallets. Then they switched to metallophones: cut lengths of pipe and conveniently placed aluminum garbage cans.

Each movement of Mr. Lang's piece increased in complexity, both in terms of the tasks faced by the soloists and the response generated by the ensemble. These went from simple, stentorian chords to chivvying figures for strings in the later movements. In the finale, when the Sōloists finally played the two xylorimbas, steel drum and drumkit that had sat silent on the stage, both groups found a complexity of expression that proved compelling to the ear.

It was a smart decision by Mr. Lang and Mr. Langrée to frame this new work with two pieces by Mozart and one by the French baroque composer Jean-Baptiste Lully. The concert opened with the whizzing overture to the former's Die Entführung aus dem Serail, with its distinctive "Turkish" percussion: bass drum, tambourine and triangle to indicate to listeners that the opera's action was set in what Europeans perceived to be the mysterious East.

The Lully offering was interesting: a Suite from that composer's incidental music to the 1670 Molíere play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Here, members of So returned to play antique instruments: tiny zill (finger cymbals) and a tongue-like, antique metallophone. The pièce de résistance was a Turkish crescent, a huge bell-tree derived from the Ottoman military. It rarely shows up in today's orchestra. In the last movement, three of these playful percussionists had a little parade to the final, sprightly march, ending the work by clattering, jingling and dinging for the the appreciative audience.

That should have been the end of the concert. However, tradition dictates that a symphony goes last, and here the choice was the Mozart Symphony No. 31, known as the "Paris." One of Mozart's first symphonies to be published in the 1779 edition, this work has the composer flexing his muscles in orchestration. However, apart from an engrossing first movement, this performance of what should be a signature work seemed rote and by the numbers. Perhaps more percussion was needed.

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.