THE FIRST THING TO KNOW ABOUT SOLO percussion concerts is that they are fascinating to watch, in ways that piano-virtuoso displays or trained-dog acts couldn't begin to approach. The stage for Steven Schick's three-concert “minifestival” in the County Museum's Leo S. Bing Theater last week was a glorious display of noisemaking hardware, from the lordly copper-and-brass circumferences of a quartet of matched kettledrums, to a gathering of wooden boxes and small ding-dingers set at rakish angles atop high poles, to a couple of small cacti that gave off feathery tones when stroked, to the bare chest of Schick himself, which, under skillfully massaging hands (his own), became all the orchestra needed for one whole composition. Composers of percussion music have to be skilled choreographers as well. It's one thing to fill a stage with a gorgeous array of kitchenware; then you have to know how to move your performer from one gadget to the next without losing a beat. Schick's concerts at LACMA proved that his awesome abilities include mastery of some very fancy footwork.
Music for percussion-and-nothing-but is relatively new to the Western concert repertory. Most of our music, after all, hangs on melodies and harmonies that enable listeners to find their place during the course of a composition, and to whistle what they've heard on their way home. Earlier percussion solos — the stupendous dialogue between chorus and timpani at the start of Bach's Christmas Oratorio or the big bangs in the scherzo of Beethoven's Ninth — made their stunning momentary impact, but real percussion music began in the hands of the American pioneers Henry Cowell, John Cage and Lou Harrison, whose inspiration came from their thrilled discovery of indigenous music of the Far East and whose tools consisted of resonant ironware (trolley-car springs, brake drums and the like) unearthed from California junkyards. That all happened around, say, the 1940s; now, finally, composers here and in Europe are building a broad and eclectic repertory. Schick has said that when he gave his first solo recital, in 1978, he could choose from just about a dozen solo works. Now the 18 compositions that he performed on these programs stand for a mere fragment of the available repertory. Schick — Iowa-born, early-40-ish, phenomenally talented and delightfully communicative — has been a strong catalyst, as have our own local heroes Amy Knoles and Art Jarvinen, luminaries of the EAR Unit.
I heard the first two of the three concerts; the prospect of a live performance of Schubert's C-major Quintet further downtown proved an irresistible alternative to the last in the series. What I found especially fascinating in the two programs I heard was the distinction between the dabblers and the dedicated. There was Elliott Carter in the 1950s, for example, clearly fascinated by the newly proclaimed legitimacy of the new medium, trying his hand at short pieces for four timpani and turning out a couple of amusingly no-brain, predictable exercises in hootchy-kootchy rhythms at odds with everything else we know from this master of complexity. There was the 1995 Watershed I by Roger Reynolds, obviously delighted with a much more diverse collection of noisemakers, but putting them to paltry use in an agonizing half-hour of disconnected sound effects.
Better than either of these were two works of Iannis Xenakis — the Psappha of 1975 and the Rebonds of 1989 — which suggest that for this composer of fiercely driven, intricately structured music the move into writing for percussion was an act of liberation. Kaija Saariaho's Six Japanese Gardens, delectable, quiet pieces that Schick had also performed at Ojai in 1997, proclaimed once again the wondrous spectrum of soft beguilements that lies deep in percussion's world. And then there were the works of the enlightened madcap Vinko Globokar — the 1985?Corporel, which explores the resonant capabilities of the human body as self-sufficient percussion instrument, and the 1972 Toucher, delightful for reasons almost beyond the reach of words. Let me try some words, however: It's a recitation — live, by Schick, in French (!), delivered in what you might call an elegant hippe-hoppe — of lines from Bertolt Brecht's Galileo, including stage directions, accompanied — nay, illuminated to a blinding glow — by a full panoply of percussion. Any juggling act you may ever have seen pales to butterfingers against the magic of this live event.
Let it be noted, furthermore, that in a wise and unprecedented stroke of managerial enlightenment, these three concerts were free to anyone with legitimate student ID; the hall, therefore, was properly full. I do not advocate economic suicide as a lifestyle; still, considering the depressing size of the crowds at some of the best of the County Museum's new-music offerings, installing this free-to-students policy as standard practice — for a year or two, say — might be a wise investment.
STUDENT-RUSH TICKETS FOR PHILharmonic concerts, on the other hand, have recently been pushed up to an unconscionable $15 (from the previous $10 that was already too high). A strong new management team takes over at the Philharmonic next month; building (or repairing) bridges to the student-age audience should take high priority. Surely last week's concert, by some distance the season's most imaginative and forward-looking program, should with proper managerial insights have done turn-away business with the same young-in-heart audience that had turned up at the museum concerts.
David Robertson — Santa Monicaborn, Paris-based, ecstatically remembered for his concert here last season with the Ensemble Intercontemporain — conducted. His program was entirely drawn from this century but greatly varied even so: Charles Ives' Three Places in New England (the usual mix of radiant-beauty-plus-hokum); Witold Lutoslawski's Cello Concerto with Lynn Harrell (arrogant, prickly, sheer genius); Leos Janácek's Sinfonietta (genial, brassy bluster, but perhaps better off in Dodger Stadium than indoors); and one total stranger, the short Sinfonia by the late Netherlands composer Tristan Keuris, full of other people's music — Ravel, mostly — with not much, at first hearing at least, to arouse interest in Keuris himself.
A program, in other words, for listeners with two ears and something in between, something to stay awake during and to discuss afterward, infinite refreshment after, say, the dank blanket of the Shostakovich Eighth as defused by Paavo Berglund two weeks before. Robertson on the podium is a bright, enkindling presence; at the pre-concert lecture he afforded some memorable insights into the thinking of a musician devoted to cutting-edge repertory. He and Steven Stucky carried those insights further at one of the Philharmonic's valuable Sunday-morning “Surprising Encounters” at the Zipper Hall in the Colburn School — free three-hour talk fests including a buffet breakfast donated by heroic man-of-all-food Joachim Splichal. Again, however, the turnout was disappointing: a crowd of reasonable size but dwindling drastically after the first break, and noticeably deficient in the young ears that should be reached by the music of their own time — and who constitute our only assurance that a concern for today's and tomorrow's music deserves a place on the symphonic agenda.