In course of the history of the orchestral apparatus, percussion instruments have entered the stage somewhat gradually. For the most part, their role has been essentially coloristic; to enrich the musical fabric with their timbral spectrum.
Only quite recently, percussionists have been summoned to the stage front by composers to perform various concertante pieces with orchestras. Over the past forty years, the concept of a percussion concerto has developed into a fascinating sub-genre, with notable contributions from HK Gruber, James MacMillan, Christopher Rouse, Tan Dun, Einojuhani Rautavaara, Jennifer Higdon, Helen Grime, Bruno Mantovani and Kalevi Aho, among others.
In 2007, John Corigiano joined the roster with Conjurer, a thirty-five minute tour-de-force for solo percussionist and string orchestra (with optional brass), written for Dame Evelyn Glennie. Since its 2008 Pittsburgh premiere, Conjurer has travelled far and wide, landing also in Cleveland this year, for late-March recording sessions for the Cleveland Orchestra’s In Focus online series.
With the orchestra’s Principal Percussion Marc Damoulakis as soloist and Music Director Franz welser-Möst on the podium, Conjurer gets a dazzling outing as a part of the Musical Magicians episode, first aired on Thursday on Adella Live streaming platform.
In the process of composing Conjurer, Corigliano sought to write genuinely melodic material for percussion, while retaining the coloristic potential of the variety of instruments involved.
Conjurer is cast in three movements, each scored for a different group of instruments, wood, metal, skin. Each movement is preceded by a cadenza, with the soloist conjuring the sonorities and paving the way for the concertante main section with the orchestra. For enhanced timbral clarity, the soloist is juxtaposed against a string orchestra. While the score includes optional brass section for the last movement only, Conjurer may be performed by a string orchestra in its entirety, as done Cleveland.
The first movement, Wood, is centred around marimba and xylophone, joined by woodblocks and claves. Emerging from silence, the music gradually takes shape in the course of the spellbinding opening cadenza, bridging into the movement proper. Violas join, followed by full string orchestra. In the course of the movement’s arch, terrific percussion textures and rapid string passages are woven together into a rousingly busy tableau of sound.
The second cadenza is marked by an avalanche of chimes, ringing out their ravishing hue of metallic vibrations. Slow string lines emerge, and the solo part is transformed into an alluring meditation on vibraphone, with mallet and bowed parts combined. A Messiaenic climax of tamtams and cymbals ensues, before the movement flows into the third cadenza.
In contrast to the written-out cadenzas in the first two movements, the closing movement calls forth an improvised one, with some guidelines provided by the composer. Scored for an extended array of drums, from talking drums to timpani, the soloist owns the stage here, with the strings making several attempts to join, only to find themselves back at square one after each iteration. Followed by some marvellous turbulence, the movement comes to its tremendous sforzato close.
Rooted in ravishing musical narrative, the performance by Damoulakis, the Cleveland Orchestra and Welser-Möst is a fabulously vigorous one, with engaging musical dialogue and astounding sonic detail. The solo part is ever conveyed with profound virtuosity, be it those fast passages of utmost dexterity or the sublime melodic lines of reflection and contemplation.
With Welser-Möst, the Cleveland strings are perfectly attuned to their soloist, giving rise to top-class ensemble performance. A powerhouse outing with myriad of fine detail, beautifully served by ever spot-on balancing, Conjurer lives up to its name at Severance Hall, summoning the resplendent joy and vitality of music-making at the highest level.
Paired with Conjurer, the programme opens with Antonín Dvořák’s String Quintet No. 2 in G major, Op. 77 (1875/1888). Though originally scored for string quartet and double bass, the Quintet is taken up by the full string section at Severance Hall, with Welser-Möst on the podium.
Performing chamber music with orchestral strings has become one of the trademarks of the Cleveland players and their Music Director. With repertoire from Beethoven to Shostakovich, the massed sonorities have provided new insight on the repertoire, while showcasing on the admirable translucence of the Cleveland strings.
In its orchestral guise, Dvořák’s Second String Quintet provides inspiring alternative for his often played Serenade for Strings in E major, Op. 22. Both written in 1875, the Quintet and the Serenade are rooted in various folk idioms. In contrast to the light-spirited Serenade, the Quintet is perhaps more elaborate, yet equally engaging. Thanks to its original scoring, the Quintet can be played as is by the full string ensemble.
The allegro con fuoco first movement opens with a brief dialogue between the upper and lower strings, followed by musical narrative of marvellous kinetic energy and whirl. The insistently repeated motives give rise to captivating sonic dramaturgy, clad in riveting sonorities by the Cleveland strings.
A splendid scherzo ensues, with its allegro vivace textures bearing fingerprints of Czech folk traditions all over. Enchanting and invigorating, the scherzo, and its sublime trio middle section are performed with pure sonic magic under Welser-Möst. A movement worthy of instant repeat, the scherzo is simply wonderful.
In Dvořák’s original version, the scherzo was framed by two slow movements. Revising his score, the composer dropped the first one, a brief intermezzo, thus stressing the role of the remaining poco andante. Although the movement opens with a simple statement, the musical fabric grows fascinatingly complex, resulting in a thrilling sonic journey, one taken with mastery by the Cleveland strings and Welser-Möst.
The Quintet closes with an upbeat allegro assai finale, featuring an alluring mixture of dance idioms, with modulations into several more or less distant keys, pre-echoing Béla Bartók, at times. With a lively outing from Welser-Möst and the Cleveland players, the Quintet is brought to its toe-tapping close.
In addition to extraordinary music-making, the bonus videos include a series fascinating talks between Damoulakis and Corigliano, delving deep into the genesis and character of Conjurer. While the two works performed seem to have very little in common, the programme still makes a fine whole, with two intriguing musical worlds joining hands.
The Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor
Marc Damoulakis, percussion
Antonín Dvořák: String Quintet No. 2 in G major, Op. 77 (1875/1888) for string orchestra
John Corigliano: Conjurer: Concerto for percussionist (2007)
Filmed at the Severance Hall, Cleveland on 25-27 March 2021
First released on Adella Live on Thursday 22 April 2021
© Jari Kallio