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Nexus and a Takemitsu Masterpiece

Orange County
Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall
06/02/2007 -  
Áskell Masson: Snare Drum Concerto
Toru Takemitsu: From me flows what you call Time
Steve Reich: Music for Pieces of Wood (Nexus solo piece)
Traditional (Zimbabwe, arr. Nexus): Tongues (Nexus solo piece)
Maurice Ravel: Bolero

Robert Slack (snare drum)
Nexus: Bob Becker, Bill Cahn, Robin Engelman,
Russell Hartenberger and Garry Kvistad (percussion ensemble)
The Pacific Symphony, Carl St. Clair (conductor)

The Pacific Symphony partnered with the extraordinary Toronto-based percussion group Nexus, for the opening concert of a percussion-oriented festival named “Pulse.” The highlight of the evening was Toru Takemitsu’s “From me flows what you call Time,” composed for Nexus to perform with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony to celebrate the centennial of Carnegie Hall in 1991. The title of the piece is taken from a line of Japanese poetry and refers to Carnegie Hall itself, the entity through which flows what we call time. St. Clair was Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony under Ozawa, and then recorded the piece with the Pacific Symphony for Sony in 1997. One could hardly ask for a more authentic performance of this astonishing and rarely performed masterpiece. Two batteries of wind-chime-like bells, hung on each side of the narrow hall at the front of the stage and played by the percussionists over long colored tethers, resounded splendidly at my seat in the center of the Dress Circle, on the third level at the rear of the hall.

The concert opened with the 1982 “Concert Piece for Snare Drum and Orchestra” by Áskell Masson, born in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1953. The soloist Robert Slack played the drum at the front of the stage, facing left. The composition was bright and martial, with the subtle and virtuosic snare drum that one would expect. The orchestral accompaniment was also percussive, with pizzicatti and the other drums featured prominently. Pleasurable and impressive, Masson’s music enjoyed the round, full and intimate acoustic, and a tight, well-balanced performance.

To introduce “From me flows what you call Time,” the composer Paul Chihara, who was a friend of Takemitsu, and Bill Cahn of Nexus, joined St. Clair on stage. Chihara described his friend “Toru” as “very Japanese”, but also influenced by German and French music as well as John Cage and Morton Feldman. He noted that Takemitsu’s composed over 200 movie scores, and that while his sense of structure sometimes seems without direction, his music is always exquisitely beautiful. Describing the evening’s piece as an homage to Debussy, he said one of the solos made him imagine the “Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune” played on a Japanese flute. Bill Cahn of Nexus spoke of the instrumentation, including Turkish cymbals and a wide array of percussion from around the world. The piece is based on the Tibetan number 5, with five colored ribbons suspending the bells, five fundamental notes, and for the five members of Nexus.

The opening wooden flute evoked a sublime Japanese sense of atmosphere, but was surrounded by the vastness of a symphony orchestra, creating a transcendent musical universe, unlimited by our notions of East and West. All of the diversity of percussion and individual sounds were supported by an immense subterranean multitude of bass instrumentation. André Previn once said that music critics will forgive a composer for anything, except for writing film music. But Takemitsu has redeemed the influence of film on classical music, giving us cinematic compositions of indescribable depth and beauty. If only we could hear this piece more often.

After the intermission, the Nexus ensemble played two pieces on their own. Steve Reich’s “Music for Pieces of Wood” from 1973 was gorgeous, sounding remarkably full and rich at the back of the hall. The timbre of the plain wooden claves was palpable, lending a delicious texture to what might seem monochromatic, the simplicity of pure rhythm and percussion. The audience, unfortunately, seemed to miss the point and was chatting up a storm during both of the Nexus pieces. In their arrangement of the traditional African piece from Zimbabwe, the thumb piano sounded a little distant. But the melody and the unusual instruments were appealing and subtly exotic.

Ravel’s Bolero, the great grandfather of cinematic compositions, was the evening’s big draw and crowd pleaser. St. Clair took the opening, tightly wrought sections slowly and deliberately, wrenching every ounce of power and intensity out of the singular, iconic melody. But as the piece drew to a close, they succumbed to the temptation to take it too fast. An encore of “Mambo” from West Side Story topped it all off.

Thomas Aujero Small



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