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Review: Switch: Percussion Concerto | Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra | Bass Performance Hall

Mr. Tambourine Man

The Fort Worth Symphony bangs all the gongs with Andrew Norman's percussion concerto, Switch.

published Saturday, April 6, 2019

Photo: Jessa Anderson
Composer Andrew Norman


Fort Worth — The Friday night Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra concert at Bass Performance Hall was an interesting collection of not so modern and oh-so modern pieces.

After the traditional “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a warm welcome was offered by Music Director Miguel-Harth Bedoya. Good that Maestro Bedoya, to begin his final of 20 seasons this September with the FWSO, explained the not-so-apparent Bohemian and percussive theme of the evening. This is somewhat in keeping with what he has consistently brought to our musical community: spice and rhythm.

Written in 1891, Carnival Overture by Antonín Dvořák is effervescent, dancelike and a fun introduction to the classical music of central Europe in and around what is now the Czech Republic. It also acted as a warmup for a busy night from the FWSO’s percussionists. Principal Keith Williams, Assistant Principal Nicholas Sakakeeny, and Jack-and-Jane-of-all-trades Deborah Mashburn and Brad Wagner got to stretch their sleeves and wrap their knuckles around countless finger skills demanded from the program. Dvořák wrote a difficult-to-master thumb roll on the tambourine for this “Life” part of his “Nature, Life, Love” trilogy. What other instrument besides a tambourine does one have to flip around in order for it to play correctly?

Most classical musicians master only one instrument and might specialize in a related one like flute to piccolo or trombone to bass trombone. One exception is a woodwind specialist, who can switch hit on all flutes, saxophones and clarinet. However, the concert percussionist has an expectation of multi-instrumentalism. While some might specialize in marimba or timpani, every member of a symphony’s rhythm section must be adept at all cymbals, drums, and other miscellanea. Standing behind their symphonic siblings, these rhythmatists go from xylophones to bass and snare drums to all manner of noise makers. Their job being to lock in tempo and, less obviously, to add sonic color.

For the last 100 and a dozen years, modern art has employed a shock factor as modern music has gradually become less tonal and more rhythmic centered. Our contemporary condition of which is Switch (Percussion Concerto) by Andrew Norman, commissioned by the Utah Symphony in 2015 for guest artist Collin Currie, whose London music festival for drummers is aptly named Wood Metal Skin. Standing next to an array of gongs, congas, tin cans and bells, Norman told how the “switch” in the music is a channel-changing sound (slap stick and kick drum) and how at the sound of its “clump” the orchestra would abruptly and repeatedly change direction. Perfect for our time of fragmented sound bites and ADHD attention spans.

Imagine the soundtrack accompanying the movie line, “The call is coming from inside the house” and the horror movie trope “BOO” jumping out from the shadows, and you get the running entrance of Currie to his battery of toys, grabbing mallets and going to town. Then commenced the following: Multi-meter knocks, tuned gongs with woodwinds, noise clouds, John Adams-like brass phrases, woodwinds and tuba mutes, log drum trios, conga trios and a partridge in a bell tree. The most effective and emotional textural combination came from bowed vibraphone, piano trill, harp, and temple bells. A pianissimo ending and a slow walk-off by Currie was memorably capped off by Bedoya literally flipping the switch to turn off the house lights to black out. After such a sonic shiatzu massage, the errant cough or phone buzz did not disturb.

Thankfully, our FWSO continues stretching with program choices like Symphony No. 1 by Bohuslav Martinů. The Czech immigrant to America wrote his first symphony in 1941 as partly a reaction to the horrors in WWII. Conventional, underappreciated and anti-climactic following such a dramatic drumming display, the audience knew enough not to clap between movements but not enough to put away some phone screens. Modern times indeed. Thanks For Reading

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Mr. Tambourine Man
The Fort Worth Symphony bangs all the gongs with Andrew Norman's percussion concerto, Switch.
by Rob Laney

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