Getting beyond the beat

Music: A concerto for two timpanists gives drums the opportunity to carry the melody.

Fine arts

January 30, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The thunderous sound you might hear next week won't be vengeful New Yorkers on the warpath, but the explosive force of 14 kettledrums in a new piece by Philip Glass.

His Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra will get its Baltimore premiere Feb. 6 at Peabody Conservatory. Faculty member Jonathan Haas, who helped bring the new work into existence, will be one of the soloists; Peabody student Svetoslav Stoyanov will be the other.

"It's one of a kind," Haas says of the concerto, which was first performed to enthusiastic notices in New York in November.

Timpani normally are used for underlining orchestral music, not stepping into the spotlight. There have been a few concertos for timpani over the years, including a few as far back as the early 18th century. But a double concerto is quite a novelty. Having one written by the guru of minimalism is quite another.

"The concerto was not only a surprise to me, but a bigger surprise to Glass himself," Haas says. "Some of it is vintage Glass, right out of his film score to `Koyaanisqatsi,' one of my favorite movies. But you'll also hear the antithesis of Glass. It's really not like anything else he has written. And the concerto moves along at a very quick pace."

Haas had the idea of commissioning a piece from Glass in 1989 and found the necessary backing, only to learn that the composer had just received a commission from the Metropolitan Opera and would be unable to take on another project. Haas never gave up.

Eventually, he was able to attract Glass's attention again. Haas got a grant from the "Meet the Composer" program and put together a new consortium of orchestras to split the cost of the commission and guarantee performances of the work.

"In terms of technique, it's definitely on a virtuosic level," the timpanist says. "We're playing melodies on the timpani; this is not just a drum-beating thing. The concerto is very athletic, and very visual, with all the timpani lined up in front of the orchestra, right next to the poor conductor."

The Glass experience has whetted Haas' appetite for more.

"I worked with Frank Zappa and had approached him about writing something for me, but he died before he could do anything," Haas says. "So now I'm dreaming about approaching David Bowie."

The Peabody Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Hajime Teri Murai, will perform Glass' Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra at 8 p.m. Feb. 6 at Peabody Conservatory's Friedberg Hall, One E. Mt. Vernon Place. The program also includes Beethoven's "Grosse Fuge" and Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." Tickets are $16, $8 seniors, $5 students. Call 410-659-8124.

Pro Musica Rara

The plethora of purple in Baltimore over the weekend extended to Pro Musica Rara's annual "SuperBach Sunday" - the cover of the program was printed on purple paper. The event Sunday afternoon at the Baltimore Museum of Art turned out to be about as lopsided as the Ravens/Giants match; one piece of music dominated the proceedings, at least in terms of performance quality.

That was the Cantata No. 51, "Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen," for soprano, trumpet and strings. It's a bright, virtuosic work that puts the singer through almost continual hoops and spirals, culminating in a brilliant set of flourishes at the final "Alleluia." The brass instrument provides elegant counterpoint to the vocalist at the beginning and end of the cantata.

Pro Musica Rara was fortunate in its soloists. Soprano Judith Pannill negotiated the florid lines cleanly and, for the most part, rode confidently into the stratospheric zone Bach favored in this score; her tone was silvery, her phrasing thoughtful. In keeping with Pro Musica Rara's admirable devotion to authentic performance practices, the kind of brass instrument Bach actually wrote for was used - a natural trumpet. It's a long, valveless, quieter precursor to the modern trumpet, and it was played with great control and consistently stylish phrasing by John Thiessen.

The cantata's melodic intricacy and expressive character emerged tellingly, and there was mostly poised playing from a small string ensemble. Cellist Allen Whear and harpsichordist Amy Rosser handled their supporting roles with particular care.

Considering the talents of Pannill and Thiesen, it's a pity they weren't given something else to do. The rest of the program was, by comparison, rather colorless - through no fault of Bach's. Closest to the mark was an account of Bach's E minor Violin Concerto that found Julie Parcells delivering the solo part cleanly and with a fairly sizable, warm tone. But the music needed more definition, more spark.

Rosser offered a rather routine reading of a prelude and fugue from Book II of "The Well-Tempered Clavier"; she also provided accompaniment in the C minor Violin Sonata, which found violinist Cynthia Roberts struggling to maintain pitch and accuracy of articulation.

Musical chairs

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