"Drum Circles" at the Aspen Music Festival

Earlier this month, The Collective performed “Drum Circles” by Christopher Theofanidis at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado, with maestro Michael Stern conducting the Aspen Festival Orchestra. This concert came as only the second performance of the new piece after its premiere with the Oregon Symphony this past March. The players were joined by Theofanidis himself, who assisted in the rehearsals and spoke at the concert, giving the audience an inside look into the commissioning of the piece, and of The Percussion Collective itself.

Drum Circle, a splashy new work for four percussion soloists and orchestra by composer-in-residence Christopher Theofanidis, opened Sunday’s penultimate Festival Orchestra concert Sunday with a bang. It’s hard to resist — both the performance and the “bang” pun.

Four members of The Percussion Collective roamed among marimbas, vibes, chimes, bells, conga drums, and a few office equipment odds and ends, wielded claves and triangles, and delivered Theofanidis’ score with consummate musicianship and more than a little showmanship.

Jonathan Allen, Ji Hye Jung, Ji Su Jung and Matthew Gordon Keown attacked their array of instruments without benefit of written scores to consult, adding gestures for panache. Theofanidis’ music made endlessly fascinating use of their ability to play with precision, with one of them picking up a phrase from another before tossing it to the next player.

Each of the five movements in the 25-minute piece explores a different aspect of percussion. The first wove together phrases from the pitched mallet instruments playing against punchy commentary from the big orchestra. The second focused on the clicks and clacks of woodblocks and claves against the soft texture of strings.

The third movement, the concerto’s short scherzo, found the players huddled over a typewriter and various office supplies extracted from two briefcases (here’s where showmanship played a role). In what seemed like the real centerpiece, the fourth movement, “Spirits and Drums,” set up a sort of call-and-response between the soloists and the orchestra’s percussion section, at one point creating a sort of sonic “wave” that circled the stage. The finale softened the tone with lyrical melodies and harmonies from the mallet instruments, bringing back the opening musical gestures to complete the circle.

Conductor Michael Stern seemed to energize the orchestra to keep up with these phenomenal musicians, resulting in a memorable performance. An encore, Astor Piazzolla’s “Grand Tango,” originally written for cello and dedicated to Mstislav Rostrapovich, emerged in the hands of the Percussion Collective as a mallet frenzy worthy of Gary Burton’s classic performances on vibes with Piazzolla’s bandoneon.
— Harvey Steiman for The Aspen Times
Robert van Sice