Third Coast Percussion’s respun Glass makes a captivating Amazon journey

Wed Sep 14, 2022 at 12:49 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Third Coast Percussion performed Philip Glass’s Aguas da Amazonia Tuesday night at the Field Museum. Photo: TCP

Third Coast Percussion opened its 15th season Tuesday night, not at a concert hall, but at the Field Museum. With the main work on the agenda being Philip Glass’s Aguas da Amazonia (Waters of the Amazon), the stately venue proved a wholly apt space.

The James Simpson Theatre offered a fine acoustic for the kaleidoscopic brilliance of the Grammy-winning group, and the Field Museum made an ideal philosophical partner as well for this environmentally minded music. Charles Katzenmeyer, the museum’s vice president of institutional advancement, explained in an introductory speech that the Field has devoted a great deal of time and resources to studying the Amazon and working to protect and preserve it for future generations. As the audience filed in, photos by museum personnel were projected on an overhead screen of Amazonian inhabitants, creatures and flora and fauna. 

The origins of this music date to a Glass piano work of the 1990s, Seven or Eight Pieces for a Ballet. Glass collaborated with the Brazilian group Uakti —which fashions its own instruments—and reworked the score into Aguas de Amazonia, where eight of the nine movements reflect a different Amazon river. 

TCP members rescored a couple of the movements for themselves for kicks but soon became intrigued by the task of retooling all nine sections of the work for traditional (more or less) percussion quartet, in a way that reflects their own instrumental arsenal and performing capabilities. Tuesday’s performance marked the U.S. premiere of the complete version of TCP’s arrangement of Aguas de Amazonia.

One doesn’t often think of similarities between Philip Glass and J.S. Bach. But one trait the composers share is the titanium-like adaptability of their music. The essence of the score remains intact and often is even enhanced when transcribed for different instruments and ensemble combinations.

Third Coast Percussion’s imaginative arrangement employs a typically audacious bestiary of instruments, both standard and unusual. The wide array of colors, timbres and blends consistently tickled the ear and made for a fascinating and exuberant traversal of this score. (The group will take selections from Aguas da Amazonia to their Carnegie Hall debut in January.)

The brilliant scoring would be impressive enough yet the four TCP composer-members—Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore—are all remarkably gifted performing musicians as well. The hard-working foursome brought versatility and bracing bravura as well as customary precision, rhythmic acuity and meticulous balancing, all essential elements in this score.

The opening “Tiquiê River,” sets the scene with the composer’s characteristic cascading rhythms presented in an organ-like sonority, soon joined by xylophone and marimba, bestowing a calming yet mysterious quality. The ensuing “Madeira River” brought more insistent pulsing and alternating dynamic contrasts.

Other highlights included the bell-like tones of “Xingu Ruver,” and haunting bowed percussion at the start of “Tapajós River.” Aptly “Amazon River” proved most mesmerizing, with its hushed, shimmering concentration and acutely nuanced shifts in hues and timbres.

Aguas ends with the only non-tributary section, “Metamorphosis No. 1” (included on the group’s most recent Cedille recording). The final section was accompanied effectively with colorful projected photos from the Amazon, as the music accelerates into a combustible coda to bring the score to a virtuosic close.

Four of the nine movements were included on TCP’s 2017 recording, “Paddle to the Sea.” Here’s hoping that the group records the remaining sections and releases a complete Aguas da Amazonia in their arrangement sometime soon.

The all-Glass evening closed with Perpetulum. Written for Third Coast Percussion in 2018, Glass’s first work for percussion ensemble is a kind of concerto minus orchestra, cast in three interlaced sessions.

The jazz-accented theme in the opening section offers one of Glass’s most engaging riffs. The four players kicked up plenty of energy and martial swagger in this music with drumming and thwackety wooden percussion aplenty, capped by a resounding gong. 

After a brief impressionistic slow section, the music segues into  Sean Connors’ pile-driving cadenza, the TCP member unleashing explosive primal energy in his breakout drumming. As the music builds to what one expects will be a brilliant coda, Glass throws a characteristic curve, the tempo slows and Perpetulum ends quietly.

This thrilling performance capped a distinguished and most enjoyable season opener by Third Coast Percussion, the iridescent jewel among Chicago’s chamber ensembles.

Third Coast Percussion performs world premieres by Missy Mazzoli, Mark Applebaum and TCP 7:30 p.m. December 7 at DePaul University.

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