Thursday’s Auckland Philharmonia concert was always going to be one of most sought-after concerts in 2014. If you’ve heard of Dame Evelyn Glennie or better yet seen her in action, you will know that she is a world-renowned, exceptionally brilliant percussionist. Possibly in anticipation of the near full-house, the APO generously made the concert available via live streaming so you could see as well as hear this fantastic musician in action. But there’s really no substitute to seeing her live.
The piece chosen was New Zealand composer John Psathas’ work “View from Olympus”. Composed with Dame Evelyn in mind and premiered by her, it is officially described as a double concerto for percussion, piano and orchestra. In terms of the percussion, the work requires, nay demands, a veritable swathe of instruments and the score itself spells out what is needed: vibraphone, marimba, simtak, dulcimer, bass steel drums, wind chimes (2 or 3 sets – she used three), bell tree, mark tree, triangle, finger cymbals, drum station (comprising 4 octobans, 4 tom toms, 3 paddle drums, cymbals (trash, splash, medium crash, china crash, plus a cluster of smallest-possible splash cymbals) and a hi-hat. The orchestra itself are not left out as they also require two percussionists playing a triangle, snare drum, mark tree, glockenspiel, tubular bells, marimba,cowbell, vibraphone, cymbals (splash, medium crash, china crash), bass drum, tambourine, 3 high tom toms (of different pitches) and finger cymbals. No ordinary piece of music by any definition.
Psathas makes musicians work hard. “Olympus” has three challenging movements and The Furies are venging spirits of retributive justice and their firey nature is evident from the very first notes. The co-ordination between percussion and piano, to say nothing of the interaction with the orchestra was incredible. Nothing seemed to be missed even though, as Dame Evelyn revealed later, the monitors used by her and pianist Stephen De Pledge had failed part way through the first movement. Transitions were seamless as Dame Evelyn transitioned from instrument to instrument. The textural, dynamic and harmonic contrasts created by the different instruments were clearly defined by both soloists and orchestra under the clear direction of conductor Hans Graf
To Yelasto Paithi (“The Smiling Child”) was inspired by the composer’s two children and is a dream-like, atmospheric movement making good use of the wind chimes and other bell elements in the percussion suite. Here was a chance for Dame Evelyn to perform extended solos and mesmerise the audience which she most certainly did.
The final Dance of the Maenads is volcanic in temperament depicting Dionysiac ecstasy and its potentially destructive tendencies. Again, highly textural with repetitive measures at a pace and pitch that test the performer and listener, it is a high-energy, high-intensity movement requiring exceptional concentration from all concerned. Visually as well as aurally, it is a spectacle. Needless to say that the Town Hall audience enjoyed it immensely.
An encore of the Fragment originally scored for vibraphone and piano and part of the work with both Dame Evelyn and Stephen De Pledge on the piano was a lovely way to round off this fantastic and memorable performance.
It would be slightly remiss of me to mention that there was a second half to the concert consisting of Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony. A rather-too-brisk interpretation from Maestro Graf with some issues, I felt. But it was always going to be overshadowed by Dame Evelyn (with all due respect !). Fair enough, too.