Sō Percussion ‘Goes Keyboard’ in Berkeley

United StatesUnited States Iyer, Shaw, Treuting, Farrin, Trueman, Dennehy: Sō Percussion (Eric Cha-Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, Jason Treuting), presented by Cal Performances, Hertz Hall, University of California Berkeley. 7.3.2019. (HS)

Photo courtesy of Sō Percussion
Sō Percussion

Vijay IyerTorque (2018, Bay Area Premiere)
Caroline ShawTaxidermy (2012)
Jason Treuting Nine Numbers 4 (2017, West Coast Premiere)
Suzanne Farrina diamond in the square (2019, Bay Area Premiere)
Dan Trueman — Selections from Nostalgic Synchronic (for Bitklavier) (2017, West Coast
Donnacha DennehyBroken Unison (2017, Bay Area Premiere)

Sō Percussion, which has been around for 20 years, brought a portfolio of works composed mostly in the last two years — two written by members of the ensemble—to their concert at Cal Performances Sunday evening. The unifying idea, titled ‘The Keyboard Reimagined’, centered on mallet instruments — mostly marimbas and vibraphones but also chimes, a prepared piano, and a ‘prepared’ digital keyboard, plus an array of flower pots.

As a fan of percussion, I look forward with relish any chance to hear an accomplished ensemble play new music. Although this turned out to be a less-than-thrilling program (more glee and joy would have been welcome) these players brought forth sounds and resources among struck instruments with intensity and care.

Theatricality, coin of the realm for some percussion groups, was mostly of the deadpan variety. The quartet played gaily colored flower pots (joltingly not quite in tune with each other) and drew sounds from a piano by pulling strings and crocheted ropes, as well as tapping with steel hammers and soft timpani sticks on the instrument’s harp inside. To begin one piece, the four musicians crowded around a single marimba before spreading out to play other mallet instruments, and for another, punctuated the intricate counterpoint with the rude whacks of bass drums played by two of the musicians’ heels.

The best of the canny program came first and last. Torque, by the jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, wove jazz harmonies and wavelike rhythms through its three movements. The first section barely whispered, exploring the tonal subtleties of softly played marimbas and vibes, but as momentum gathered, enthusiasm remained contained all the way to the end. Still, the composer found nifty ways to develop rich sounds.

Caroline Shaw’s Taxidermy — from 2012, the oldest piece on the program  —found found gentle rhythms and ear-pinching harmonies from the flower pots. The results reflected the composer’s penchant for fourth member’s playing of single notes and clusters achieved by a keyboard-width, felt-surfaced plank on the keys. Her style, aptly described as ‘impressionistic’, seemed more concerned with demonstrating these sounds, fascinating as they were, than with getting anywhere specific.

Likewise, ensemble member Dan Trueman’s selections from Nostalgic Synchronic (for Bitklavier) experimented engagingly with the dynamic and tonal waves in electronic loops, first as single notes, and later overlapping into a sort of canon to achieve a level of complexity. Trueman used a software program connected to a digital keyboard to create a new instrument, the Bitklavier. As a demonstration of what this technology could do, it was absorbing. As a piece of music? Not so much, but I eagerly await the full results of Nostalgic Synchronic when it’s done.

Thank heaven for Broken Unison, a 20-minute tour-de-force for mallet artists by the Ireland-born composer Donnacha Dennehy. It not only employed the full range of the keyboard instruments — from the richness of a marimba’s lowest end to the tinkle of chimes — but drew intrepid virtuosity from the musicians. If the uncomfortably-timed extra-loud whacks on two strategically situated bass drums seemed out of place, the rest of the score rose and fell with intensity and density, challenging each player’s musical acuity for a rousing finish.

Steve Reich’s 2009 Mallet Quartet, a groundbreaking piece for two marimbas and two vibraphones, inspired a whole subgenre of percussion music. It was the inspiration for this collection of commissions, and thus a rendition of Reich’s 1972 Clapping Music, a witty study in phase-shifting rhythm, made the perfect encore.

Harvey Steiman

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