The Utmost Embodiment and Rhythm of Nature

My trips to Heinz Hall to see and hear the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra are mostly driven by the joy of music. Yet there’s often much more offered than just the music. Tonight I was treated to a very entertaining introduction to the Steven Stucky’s Spirit Voices, Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra. In the lobby members of the Duquesne University School of Music were on hand to generously demonstrate percussion instruments with exhibitions and explanations of the instruments and their sounds; and they even gave us the opportunity to try out the instruments ourselves. I tried the Vibraphone, and my friend Miki tried the gong.

All three selections this evening share a similar character – the utmost embodiment and rhythm of nature. Ravel’s Mother Goose was the first of these programmatic pieces with recognizable melodies wrapped around themes such as Sleeping Beauty, Tom Thumb, Beauty and the Beast, and finally the Enchanted Garden. Conductor Juraj Valcuha lead the Pittsburgh Symphony on a beautiful journey through the suite with dulcet rhythms, lush strings and a singularly optimistic sound.

According to the composer Steven Stucky, “Spirit Voices takes its inspiration from the diversity of spirits and other supernatural forces from cultures around the world who manifest their presence through sound. The music itself does not borrow from these original cultures but instead comes purely from my own imagination.”

Stucky’s inspiration combined with his own imagination have created a fascinating kind of new classical music for the audience. I myself found that half the enjoyment of the piece came from the sounds, yet the other half was from the interest I derived in watching the soloist, Dame Evelyn Glennie perform with the percussion. It was as if she was not merely playing the instruments, but was enmeshed in a form of dance amongst a collection of xylophones, glockenspiels, gongs, tom-toms, wood blocks, cowbells, beaters and sticks.

In his introduction, Steven Stucky indicated that the piece was full of colors and character with sudden contrasts, and that we might all want to be ready for surprises. He indicated that the PSO were full partners with the percussion, and that he hoped we would all be fascinated, surprised and excited.

After intermission came for me the real treat, Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances. On wikipedia I read that the original name was “Fantastic Dances,” with movement titles of “Noon,” “Twilight” and “Midnight.” The symphony was wide ranging, with lush melodies, and sweeping romanticism, and full bodied orchestration. From the PSO I enjoyed the vivid sound and vibrant texture, and conductor Valcuha seemed to energize the orchestra further with his energetic phrasing. At times the sound was soft and clear, others, intense and breathtaking – all in all this is a composition that must be experienced live at the concert hall – listening at home (which I did a few days prior to the concert just to whet my appetite) just doesn’t cut it.

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