Review: Third Coast Percussion

Feb. 23, Singleton Arts Center, Virginia Commonwealth University

A percussion quartet is not a typical chamber ensemble, especially not on the schedule of a series like VCU’s Rennolds Chamber Concerts, whose usual attractions are string or string-with-piano groups playing mostly standard European classical-romantic repertory.

Third Coast Percussion, in sharp contrast, presented a program entirely devoted to contemporary works (the earliest from 1993), several of them composed by members of the quartet. That’s not unusual for such groups: As Third Coast’s Robert Dillon observed during the concert, virtually all of the repertory for percussion ensemble has been written in the past 80 years. And most of the instruments this group plays are either of fairly recent vintage – the modern marimba, for example, dates from the turn of the 20th century – or have been employed only recently in Western art-music.

Since its founding in 2004, this Chicago-based foursome – joining Dillon are Sean Connors, Peter Martin and David Skidmore – has become one of the most popular percussion ensembles and one of the most active in composing and commissioning new music, as well as adapting music originally for other instrumentation.

Third Coast Percussion’s VCU program featured three works by its members – “BEND” by Martin (formerly head of VCU’s percussion program), “Ordering-Instincts” by Dillon and two sections from “Aliens with Extraordinary Abilities” by Skidmore; a collective work by the four, “Niagara” from the film score “Paddle to the Sea;” an arrangement of “Amazon River” from “Aguas de Amazonia” by Philip Glass (originally for piano); and recent pieces by Augusta Read Thomas, Mark Applebaum and Devonté Hymes.

Most were rooted in marimbas, although these resonant mallet-percussion keyboard instruments were frequently played in unconventional ways – tapped like drums, bowed like string instruments, even resonating in response to human breath. Martin’s “BEND” (2016) hinged on a number of these techniques, although mostly in sequence rather than in combination.

The marimba-centric works, notably Hymes’ “Perfectly Voiceless” (2018) and Glass’ “Amazon River,” generally featured recurring rhythmic patterns, often growing more complex as pieces progressed.

The two most novel offerings were Thomas’ “Prayer,” from her longer “Resounding Earth” (2012), for an assemblage of traditional Tibetan “singing bowls” singly producing brightly resonant tones and collectively creating densely chromatic overtones; and Applebaum’s “Aphasia” (2010), in which recorded vocal samples of words, numbers and sound effects are synchronized to physical gestures by live performers in what sounds like a high-tech re-creation of the faux-linguistic comedy routines of Peter Ustinov.

In several of the selections, video from an overhead camera helpfully clarified who was playing what and how. Kaleidoscopic animations accompanying Skidmore’s “Aliens” excerpts enlarged the experience of “Don’t Eat Your Young” and compounded the tension of “Torched and Wrecked.”

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