It really would have been better to start out with the Mendelssohn Symphony No. 4, the “Scottish”, rather than the whizbang world premiere that shared the program. However, the Dallas Symphony really had no choice, considering the vast array of exotic percussion instruments that lined the front of the stage at the Meyerson Symphony Hall on Saturday night. Set up must have taken hours. Tear down, not so much.
The concert almost didn’t happen due to the freakish weather that has plagued North Texas all week. Rehearsal after rehearsal was canceled. Then, the Thursday night opening was canceled. Then, the Friday repeat was cancelled. Finally, the Saturday night concert was a go. What with all the ticket holders clamoring for a seat, it was packed to the rafters.
Usually, a world premiere causes a bit of a ripple, but when the composition is by a rock star, it is a tsunami. Stewart Copeland was the drummer for The Police, the ’70s and ’80s reggae/jazz/punk-inspired rock sensation that featured superstar lead singer Sting. A recent reunion tour reportedly netted a cool 350 million. That’s chump change in the rock world but probably 700 years of salary for even the most successful classical music composers.
However, none of this grumpy disparity envy detracted one bit from the boffo success that Copeland had with his new piece, “Gamelan D’Drum for World Percussion and Orchestra.” The work, which was conducted by Jaap van Zweden, was commissioned for the Dallas Symphony and the percussion ensemble, D’Drum. Four of the five band members teach music at SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts: Jamal Mohamed, John Bryant, Ed Smith and Doug Howard, who is also the principal percussionist of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. The other player is Ron Snider, also in the DSO.
Last year, I heard the concerts in Carnegie Hall in New York City that the world famous Chinese Pipa (a stringed instrument) player, Wu Man, put on as part of a festival. Having experienced that concert, in which these family bands from rural China were brought to the stage in New York, gave me insight into Copeland’s piece. Copeland mined such influences for his composition.
For example, the Chinese folk bands entered playing their percussion instruments, as did D’Drum. Many of the instruments were similar and some even crude. Three of the players pounded a hollowed-out log with long poles, which created a remarkably sonorous ring. Similarly, one of the instruments that one of Wu Man’s family bands played was a rough hewn bench hit with a brick. Bell trees, rain sticks, marimbas, gamelan bells, gongs and drums of every size and shape shared the stage with percussion instruments unidentifiable to a western audience. There wasn’t a snare in sight.
The result was cast in a disappointingly prosaic and Western three-movement. fast-slow-fast form, which was worn out by the time Brahms inherited it from Beethoven and Mozart. But what we got crammed into this tired old form was anything but prosaic. It was a musical piñata, cracked by a drum stick, which showered its musical influences in a glittering spray. Jazz, soul, minimalism, reggae, big band, Asian pentatonic scales, standard two-against-three, unison strings a la Motown arrangements for pops concerts, and lots more was tossed into the hot pot and what came out was something both remarkably familiar and refreshingly new.
From the eerie beginning, when only a hidden fan disturbed a bamboo wind chime, to the ’60s “environment” record jungle noises that led us to the reflective second movement, to the drumming of the finale, there was always something interesting and, occasionally, unique to hear.
The audience loved every minute of it and Copeland was given an ovation that Puccini would have envied after the premiere of Butterfly. How different to the “we survived that” response to the last premiere that the Dallas Symphony offered.
Considering that rehearsal time was practically nil, and the complexity of Copeland’s piece, the symphony can be excused for a scrappy trek through the Mendelssohn symphony after intermission. Many in the audience had left anyway.
It's too bad there won't be another chance to hear it; the DSO wisely didn't schedule a concert on Super Bowl Sunday in North Texas. Consider this the Super Bowl of the classical world.