Third Coast Percussion Lays Down a Virtuosic Set at Samueli

Photo courtesy of Saverio Truglia

Third Coast Percussion. From left, David Skidmore, Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, and Peter Martin.

Perhaps a concert of music for percussion was a tough sell. Or maybe it was that the percussionists in question were appearing on the Segerstrom Center’s solid gold Chamber Music series, normally devoted to music by people with names like Mozart, Brahms and Schubert. Maybe word hadn’t gotten out. For whatever reason, there were plenty of empty seats Friday night in Samueli Theater when Third Coast Percussion gave one of the most entertaining and energetic concerts this listener has heard in quite awhile.

Make no mistake, the Chicago-based quartet — Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin and David Skidmore, who all met when studying at Northwestern — are no Blue Man Group. Grammy winners, they haven’t sold out. But they do put on a show, though with proper lighting, some of it moody, and camera work and friendly chat between numbers, that show is invariably aimed at getting us closer to the music itself. And one of the joys of this music is seeing it performed, all whirling sticks and mallets and impossible coordination.

The music for percussion ensemble in the classical tradition is a relatively new phenomenon, dating back to 1931, with Edgar Varèse’s “Ionisation.” A considerable repertoire has developed since, and Third Coast is adding to it. Friday’s program featured several pieces commissioned by the group, including a new work by Philip Glass, as well as music composed by group members. All the composers on the agenda were living.

This music has more variety than one might initially think. Friday’s program didn’t wear thin. That’s partly because a percussion quartet is not made up of four instruments but four musicians who play a potentially infinite number of instruments, including in this case pocket combs and automobile brake drums. There was a veritable arsenal onstage here. The composers seemed to relish these infinite possibilities, and each went off in their own direction.

Some of them unexpected. Augusta Read Thomas’s “Resounding Earth” (of which the quartet performed the second movement, “Prayer”) is scored for different types of bells, including small prayer bowls, variously sized and tuned, which resound beautifully when hit and glow warmly when a mallet is rolled around its outside, as when a finger rubs the rim of a wine glass. Thomas used these possibilities to create a meditative work that seemed to float weightlessly in the air, the reverberations from the bells coming together as chords in the distance.

Glass’s new work, “Perpetulum,” was co-commissioned for the group by Center patrons Elizabeth and Justus Schlichting. You wouldn’t mistake it for the work of any other composer, but Glass, in his first piece for percussion ensemble, has gone to town. In three substantial movements and lasting some 22 minutes, “Perpetulum” uses a large array of instruments, including tuned (vibraphone, marimba, xylophone) and non-tuned percussion, but he uses them advisedly, giving the sections of the piece each its own distinctive sound palette. He sets his grooves going (sometimes without pitch) and seasons them with distinctive chord progressions and ebullient polyrhythms. “Perpetulum” is a teeming and joyous ride.

Among the many other works performed — not a weak effort in the bunch — Mark Applebaum’s  “Aphasia” must be singled out. It consists of a taped track of vocal samples transformed into all manner of sounds and “a series of specifically prescribed physical gestures to be performed live,” which the quartet did, silently, in unison, bizarrely, intricately and amusingly, right before our eyes. A gimmick perhaps, but a fascinating one.

Also on the program — many of them featured on the group’s new album and tinged by a minimalistic sensibility to harmony and rhythm — were “Niagara” from “Paddle to the Sea,” a composition by the group; Martin’s “BEND”; Gemma Peacocke’s “Death Wish”; Devonté Hynes’s “Perfectly Voiceless”; Dillon’s “Ordering-instincts”; and Skidmore’s blistering “Torched and Wrecked,” which wound up the program thrillingly. A selection from Danny Clay’s “Playbook,” using four plastic pocket combs, the tines gently stroked, and a tiny music box, served as a cute encore.

These players don’t kid around. The virtuosity on display is a wonder to see and hear.  The music is no mere novelty, but opens up new vistas of sound. Third Coast Percussion is scheduled to repeat this program on April 13 up at Cal Tech. I’m betting it’s worth the drive.

Timothy Mangan is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at timothymangan5@gmail.com.