Friday, May 10, 2013

Concert Review: NEXUS and the RPO

Posted By on Fri, May 10, 2013 at 10:29 AM

The audience at Thursday night's Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra performance (Peter Bay, guest conductor) was treated to a "sound bath" - there is no other way to describe the beautiful and interesting composition "From Me Flows What You Call Time," by Toru Takemitsu, performed with NEXUS percussion ensemble. Paired with Karen Tanaka's "Water of Life," this is a must-hear concert.

The first half of the program was only the Takemitsu work, and it deserved to stand alone. The stage was filled with the orchestra musicians, as well as the five percussionists of NEXUS. Each of the percussionists occupied a large space. Two percussionists were in multi-sided, multi-rowed sound cages filled with all sizes and types of bells, gongs, cymbals, drums, wood blocks, wooden jiggers, and rain sticks. These areas were approximately 7' high by 6' wide per side. The middle percussionist had xylophone and, primarily, several large steel drums. The two back percussionists had xylophones and more bells, gongs, and cymbals. On each front wing of the stage was a tall, wide bar, supporting more than 20 long chimes. The metal instruments were made of all types of metals, thickness, shape, and sizes. And each percussionist used a variety of mallets.

NEXUS was a feast for the eyes, as well as the ears. Each percussionist moved as if taking part in a water ballet. The entire arc of their bodies was part of the creation of the sound. At one point, percussionist Bill Cahn created the loudest sound of the work, a sort of rolling thunder on a huge cymbal that began with the smallest of movement, but rose gently and surely through larger and larger movements, creating more and more sound until it started to recede to where he was barely moving, even as the smallest of sounds still penetrated to the upper reaches of the hall.

The Tanaka piece "Water of Life" was a world premiere with the composer in the house. Like the Takemitsu work, the Tanaka piece captured nature with perfection. I could just as easily have closed my eyes and believed I was standing at the shore, so closely did the music emulate both the surface and the undersea experience. Even so, each composer's work was distinct. The Takemitsu composition was as highly abstract as wind, while the Tanaka composition had a sufficient blending of recognizable elements to give it a more grounded, standing-at-water's-edge feeling.

As per the program notes, Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) was a Japanese composer. Karen Tanaka was also born in Japan (b. 1961). The Takemitsu piece was inspired by a poem, "Clear Blue Water" by Makoto Ooka, and the Tibetan "Wind Horse." The Tanaka piece found inspiration from the Biblical reference to the water of life, and is a prayer for the tsunami victims in Japan.

The RPO always impresses me when it takes on these grand works that couldn't possibly have a readable score. Works that seem to lack the Western version of a metronome tick-tocking.Works that depart, or maybe never begin, with classical form. And, while there has been much intentional public relations coming out of the RPO to advertise its purpose in seeking out lesser-known composers, what I would say is look for more of these spectacular, memorable works from anywhere around the globe and then allow your audience to say, "I want to hear more of that."

I was not, however, as "joyeuse" with the performance of the French composers' works on the program. By Maurice Ravel, there was "Menuet antique" and "Le Tombeau de Couperin," and by Lili Boulanger, there was "D'un matin de printemps" (On a Spring Morning). My first consideration was whether these pieces were an appropriate pairing with the Takemitsu and Tanaka because, as performed, the styles were too different. My second comment is that I was not convinced as to the performances being in the true style of the composers, the eras, or the opportunities for performance idioms that could have used a more French romantic interpretation to generate a more cohesive overall concert.

The RPO will perform the program again Saturday, May 11, 8 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St. $15-$82. RPO.org.

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