Percussionists are usually somewhat hidden in the orchestra; when they rise up or move forward, you can guess that something interesting is about to happen. But there was no guesswork at the Delaware Symphony’s recent chamber concert. Something interesting was happening all evening long, as three of its virtuoso percussionists took center stage.
DSO players William Kerrigan and Thomas Blanchard welcomed guest percussionist David Nelson—along with Kimberly Reighley (flute). If ever a concert was aptly titled, Lift Off! was it.
Arrayed in the Hotel Du Pont’s Gold Ballroom were more than 50 instruments, large and small: keyboards (vibraphone, xylophone, marimba) and drums of all sorts, along with all the bells and whistles—and bird calls, train noises, sirens, and ratchets—in the percussionist’s arsenal. This was an evening to leave aside formality and preconceptions and enter a different soundscape. In his opening remarks, Blanchard set forth the evening’s sonic perspective: “I hear rhythm as melody.”
All 13 works on the program were written after 1936, about half by composers familiar to the artists but not to most of the audience. The opener was Music for Three Players, a sometimes humorous three-movement work by Gerald Strang (1980-1983) with a call-and-response format that felt like conversation.
Another three-movement work followed—Duettino Concertante by Ingolf Dahl (1912-1970) for flute and percussion. The complex piece opens with echoing fugue-like rhythms, and the second movement has a mysterious flute melody that Reighley wove with ease, panache, and polish through Blanchard’s slightly menacing drum timbres.
Drums for war, joy, and dance
Most of the works were shorter, and the evening held unexpected musical treats. Nelson strapped on a colonial-style rope drum and gave a brief history lesson about the surprising uses of drums in times of war. Then he and Reighley (on piccolo) launched into a spirited and charming set of two early American hits that had toes tapping—"Downfall of Paris" and "Yankee Doodle."
Kerrigan played Three Dances for Solo Snare Drum by Warren Benson (1924-2005), a percussion tour de force of unexpected depth. He followed it with a splashy rendition of his own arrangement (with Quinto Maganini) of the Polka from Shostakovich’s satiric ballet The Golden Age. Reighley led the audience in clapping a seven-beat rhythm as Blanchard and Kerrigan gave a joyous rendition of "Unsquare Dance," a fabulously complex work by jazz great Dave Brubeck (1920-2012).
Blanchard and Nelson played the latter’s own composition "Hands On" for bongos and djembe—two drums from different parts of the world that are seldom played together. And Nelson had another of his works on the program: a hauntingly beautiful arrangement of "Fragile" by Sting (b. 1951) for vibraphone and marimba.
The evening’s highlight was its title work, "Lift Off!" by Russell Peck (1945-2009). It’s a seminal and tremendously exciting composition for three percussionists playing nine drums. Per the composer’s instructions (read aloud), the players “should not wear encumbering attire and must be totally committed to the act of beating the drums.” Peck also suggests that the room be darkened; here, the only light came from the music stands. The work begins with slow rolling rhythms but builds to have a monumental visceral and physical effect. Equally artistic and primal, thrilling to hear and feel, it is a breathtaking, virtuosic work that lives up to its title.
Throughout, the musicians took turns introducing not only the music but also the instruments. There was some history, musicology, and show-and-tell. Musical exposition can sometimes be distracting or even counterproductive to enjoyment. But though it added to the concert’s length, here it was a welcome master class in knowing what to listen to and, more importantly, what to listen for.
The trio tied up the evening in a bow with Louis Prima’s famous swing tune "Sing, Sing, Sing," in an arrangement by the great vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. The music heated up with Blanchard and Nelson barreling along on the keyboards, and right in the middle Kerrigan had a fabulous 32-bar drum solo where—thanks to the way our ears had been retuned—you could indeed hear the melody in the rhythm.
What, When, Where
Lift Off! An Evening with DSO Percussion and Flute. Percussionists Thomas Blanchard, William Kerrigan, and guest artist David Nelson, with Kimberly Reighley, flute. Delaware Symphony Orchestra chamber series. February 19, 2019, at the Hotel Du Pont, Wilmington, DE. (302) 656-7441 or delawaresymphony.org.