- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 6, 2001

Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra weighed in Thursday evening at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall with "More Drums Along the Potomac," the sequel to the acclaimed 1999 percussion festival featuring Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie. On tap were Stewart Wallace's "Gorilla in a Cage" and the world premiere of Joan Tower's "Strike Zones," bookended by chestnuts by George Gershwin and Maurice Ravel.
The focus of the evening was on the Wallace and the Tower pieces. Both pieces were composed with Miss Glennie in mind; the Wallace number debuted in Germany in 1997. As is typical of the modern percussion concerto a phenomenon that can be directly linked to Miss Glennie's brilliance and star power the large orchestral forces supporting the soloist generally serve as more of a backdrop to the solo action than as generators of musical ideas.
Of the two main solo vehicles, the Wallace was clearly the more thoughtful and successful. Inspired by a dying relative who refused to give up the fight, "Gorilla in a Cage" is a sort of latter-day "Death and Transfiguration," a dramatic musical narrative of the ebb and flow of a human life. Tonal throughout, "Gorilla," unfortunately, remains mired in a kind of worn-out minimalism that vaguely articulates emotions without giving them depth. Nonetheless, the music blends seamlessly with the integral percussion part, creating a work that, while not always easy to listen to, conveys the sense of an epic struggle.
Miss Glennie's performance was at times sensitive and at times volcanic, as befits the piece. She handled a huge array of percussion instruments, including a two-octave set of PVC tubes the kind you probably have in your basement.
She also contributed weird but compelling wordless vocal solos at the beginning and near the end of the piece, with her unearthly alto electronically amplified and reverbed. The use of the voice added the haunting emotions of rebellion and resignation to this oddly effective work.
Miss Tower's new piece left much to be desired, although it is a different kind of work.
Miss Tower is less interested in pure music in this number than she is in creating orchestral textures, aural canvases upon which Miss Glennie can paint her percussive magic and explore the nuances of instruments that are rarely used expressively. Melodically it does not have much to offer. So the focal point becomes, as it perhaps should, Miss Glennie's artistry, particularly two nice cadenzas she performed on the cymbals and high-hat and on the drum set respectively, accompanied by tinkling percussion instruments played in the balconies. These proved the memorable moments in a work that is otherwise undistinguished in its adherence to late-1960s academic postmodernism.
As is the accepted modern-concert practice, the two newer pieces on the program were surrounded with more traditional fare in the form of Gershwin's "Cuban Overture" and Ravel's unceasingly popular "Bolero."
The Gershwin was a mess. One of this great composer's more complex works, both tonally and rhythmically, the overture sometimes is difficult to execute cleanly, as the NSO amply proved Thursday evening. Melodic lines could scarcely be perceived through the percussion.
Perhaps the instrumental placement was also at fault: The orchestra members had to move to unaccustomed places onstage to accommodate the large array of percussion instruments flanking the conductor. Even so, the piece's rhythm was sloppy and the section playing uninspired, resulting in a kind of south-of-the-border musical mush.
Fortunately, the Ravel was more dead-on. Propelled, delightfully, by Miss Glennie, who surprised the audience by returning to play Ravel's relentless snare-drum part, the piece began a little uncertainly but reached its irresistible climax, aided by an entire row of additional snare drums placed across the back of the stage.
Publicists like to call a performance like this a "sonic spectacular," but that's certainly what it was as "Bolero" built to a deafening and highly satisfying final explosion. What's intriguing is that Ravel's piece, supposedly composed as a mere experiment, is not much different in some ways from Miss Tower's "Strike Zones," against which it was juxtaposed.
Like the newer piece, "Bolero" is an exercise in orchestral textures. It is, however, supported by a memorable, if repetitious, melodic idea. That's why it's still in the repertoire. So the question is, when will our newer classical composers begin to understand that audiences, retro creatures that they are, still want to hear a tune?
Enough cannot be said of Miss Glennie's skill, poise and grace. An entire evening of percussion is not something that the standard classical audience generally lines up to see. But Miss Glennie's skill and reputation are proving to be quite a draw, bringing in younger listeners who generally don't like the same things as the blue-hairs. Miss Glennie is the kind of performer that serious music has been crying out for in recent years. She continues to inspire new concertos and other solo pieces from contemporary composers, thus helping to revitalize our sometimes stale repertoire.
"More Drums Along the Potomac" closes this evening with the U.S. premiere of Chen Yi's "Percussion Concerto." Also on the program are Edgar Varese's timeless "Ionisation," George Tsontakis' "Mirologhia," initially commissioned for the NSO, and Silvestre Revueltas' percussive symphonic suite "La Noche de Los Mayas" ("Night of the Mayas").

Two-1/2 Stars
WHAT: "More Drums Along the Potomac"
WHO: National Symphony Orchestra, with Leonard Slatkin conducting and featuring percussionist Evelyn Glennie
WHERE: Kennedy Center Concert Hall, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW
WHEN: 8:30 tonight
TICKETS: $19 to $69
PHONE: 202/467-4600 or 800/444-1324

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