I wasn’t able to stay for the whole of Sunday afternoon’s concert by the Tacoma Symphony (Schubert’s Ninth Symphony) but I’m very glad I was there for the first half – and 800 other people in the Rialto agreed with me. Standing and whistling for the orchestra, soloists Amy Putnam and Matthew Drum and, above all, composer Greg Youtz, the full house showed the TSO just what a stunning piece they’d just premiered – Youtz’ Duo Concerto for Percussion.
Commissioned by the TSO, Youtz’ concerto was inspired not just by world music styles of percussion but by the orchestra’s desire to show off its two fine percussion principals. After a serene rendition of Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” featuring a zephyrous flute solo and offering a suitably Arcadian opening to the concerto, Youtz – a music professor at Pacific Lutheran University and respected regional composer – joined conductor Harvey Felder in an entertaining conversational introduction The 45-minute piece showed off more than 30 instruments, but especially Putnam’s superlative marimba work and Drumm’s energetic, rock-solid timpani playing.
Opening with rainforest sounds (a rainstick, woodblock chirps, some amazing raindrops from the violin section hitting their strings with pencil metal) the first movement was a musical palindrome, working up to a catchy five-tone scale passed around the orchestra. In between the bluesy 7th chords were other percussion noises, popping out around the orchestra (fingers on double basses, wind machines at the back) as if in a real forest.
The second movement, Bravura, featured Drumm in a fierce timpani war-cry while Putnam sidled around with Monty Python deadpan humor to interrupt his solos. It’s probably the first time most of the audience had laughed out loud during a classical concerto – certainly the visual humor was just as funny as the musical battle, though the orchestral score was a bit directionless in the middle and the brass could have been louder.
After the brief third movement, Bereft – a really sweet marimba duo that could have easily been longer – the final Bacchanale swept along in a sassy 12/8 salsa, held in impressively tight rein by Felder and contrasting rhythmic virtuosity from the soloists with hilarious big-band syncopation from the brass. The piece was truly a lot of fun, despite the silly Beethoven 5th joke, and danced on to a raucous party finish.
Youtz’ Duo Concerto pulls classical complexity into the dynamism and tone painting of world music with its own unique voice – this is a work that should go, as the Rialto’s whistling audience shows – firmly into the repertoire as one of the most enjoyable percussion showcases around.