Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra
Length: 20 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (timbaletas [pitched drums], bongos, amplified marimba, xylophone, crotales [small, pitched brass discs], vibraphone, Almglocken [pitched Alpine herd bells], two triangles, two cymbals, a water gong [a tam-tam or gong lowered into a large basin filled with water], bass drum, and tenor drum), piano, harp, strings, and solo percussion.
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances
Though percussion instruments are as ancient and as universal as any instrument, their place in the orchestra has rarely been “front and center.” Indeed, sometimes we can’t even see the percussionists in the back of the orchestra, we just hear their colorful work “back there somewhere.” (This is ignoring the fact that, technically of course, the piano is a percussion instrument.)
Such is not the case in Joseph Schwantner’s Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra, a work commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its 150th-anniversary season (1992-93). Percussion is featured throughout. We hear its colorful capabilities, ranging from the bizarre and other-worldly sound of the “water gong” to the ethereal sound of the bowed vibraphone and bowed crotales, from the evocative clang of the Almglocken (popularized by 19th-century composer Gustav Mahler) to the sheer power of drums in the third-movement cadenza that is as impressive and as in-your-face as any drum solo at a rock concert.
Unlike many members of the orchestra, percussionists don’t play just one instrument; they play many, often instruments that require entirely different techniques. Timpani, bongos, and concert bass drum – even though they seem similar – actually require quite an adjustment on the part of the player. They are, for example, often played with different mallets, sticks, or even with the hands. Keyboard percussion such as vibraphone and marimba are another whole category of instruments, requiring another whole technical skill-set.
For the composer it’s a bit treacherous, all those possibilities, all those sounds, and all those different techniques to consider – too many, really. The challenge for the composer is to fashion a convincing and satisfying musical experience – for the player and the listener – without seeming like a hungry kid suddenly let loose in the candy store. Schwantner does that with grace and with passion, making musical choices that give the entire work both a dramatic and an elegant quality.
Like his peer John Harbison, Schwantner has an impressive list of credentials. He was also awarded the Pulitzer Prize (in 1969, for his first [!] orchestral work Aftertones of Infinity), the Kennedy Center Friedheim Awards First Prize, as well as a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, several grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Schwantner’s catalogue of works is extensive, and his music is regularly recorded and performed by orchestras around the world.
For the premiere recording of the Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra on RCA Red Seal, Schwantner included the following note:
The Concerto, cast in a three-movement arch-like design, opens with the soloist stationed near the other percussionists. A collaborative relationship develops between the soloist and [her] percussion colleagues in an expanded ensemble that also includes piano and harp. The soloist, forcefully and propulsively, articulates the primary musical materials with a battery of timbaletas a pair of bongos, amplified marimba, xylophone, and a two-octave set of crotales. The marimba and drums are most prominently featured in this movement.
Throughout the second movement, In memoriam, a slow, dark-hued elegy [the work is dedicated to Schwantner’s good friend and fellow composer Stephen Albert, who died while this Concerto was being composed] , the soloist is placed center-stage, while the other percussionists remain silent. The soloist employs a vibraphone (played both with mallets and with a contrabass bow), a rack of nine Almglocken, a high-octave set of crotales (played with beaters and with a bow), two triangles, two cymbals, a water gong (a tam-tam lowered into a large kettledrum filled with water), a concert bass drum, and a tenor drum. Two principal ideas appear: a pair of recurrent ringing sonorities played on the vibraphone and an insistent "heartbeat" motif articulated on the bass drum.
The second movement leads directly into the fast and rhythmic third movement, which begins with an improvisatory section for the soloist. While continuing to improvise, the soloist walks back to [her] initial performance position of the first movement. As in that movement, the amplified marimba is again prominently featured, but here the soloist plays angular and strongly accented gestures in four-mallet block voicings. The final section, drawn from the drum motives of Movement I, proceeds to a high-energy cadenza and conclusion.
— Composer and writer Dave Kopplin is Assistant Professor of Music at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. In addition to writing for the Philharmonic, he has written for the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts, University of Florida’s Philips Center, LA Opera, and Performing Arts Magazine.