Church bells, cannon fire, swaying trees, shimmering moonlight — the Tacoma Symphony’s new artistic director Sarah Ioannides will make her debut Saturday night in a concert brimming with all the colors a symphony orchestra can produce.
At the center of the palette, however, is the percussion section, with international soloist Dame Evelyn Glennie performing the world premiere of a concerto by Australian composer Sean O’Boyle, written to honor those who lived through World War I.
“Sean is a very experienced and colorful composer,” Glennie said in a phone interview. “He really brings out the contrast between the lyrical and the percussive.”
For a composer — and for Tacomans, who get to hear Glennie play live — that’s a big accolade. The 49-year-old Scotswoman was the first person to make a successful career as a solo percussionist, and she continues to do it with style, grace and intense musicality, performing everything from 20th-century classics like Bartòk to cutting-edge compositions, to the 1,000-drum version of Underworld’s “And I Will Kiss” at the 2012 London Olympics. She’s a triple Grammy winner, a Dame Commander of the British Empire, and an author and jewelry designer to boot. And, as someone profoundly deaf since childhood, she has also redefined through autobiography, film and a TED talk the world’s understanding of how people hear, and just who can be a musician.
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Lucky for Tacoma, she’s also a friend of Ioannides, who was recently chosen as the TSO’s new music director after a two-year search. Having met Glennie at a festival, Ioannides booked her to play with the Tacoma Symphony now and the Spartanburg Philharmonic, Ioannides’ other orchestra, next February. Ioannides also suggested composer O’Boyle, having tried his music in a previous concert, and “Portraits of Immortal Love” — the latest of more than 170 percussion concertos commissioned by Glennie — was born.
“It’s a wonderful experience to work with an artist of her caliber,” said O’Boyle via phone from Pennsylvania, where he’s artist-in-residence at Moravian College. A prolific composer, arranger and conductor, O’Boyle easily straddles the worlds of classical, jazz and film, and his neo-Romantic style luxuriates in harmonies and tone colors.
Inspired by the centenary of the start of World War I, O’Boyle composed “Portraits” in a continuous style, with different sections conveying the emotions of those whose loved ones endured the violence and separation of war. Highly programmatic, it paints pictures with the instrumentation of both orchestra and soloist, contrasting the bell-like sounds of tubular bells (love), crotales (church bells, death) and vibraphone (the bleakness of winter) with the percussive harshness of snare and bass drum (gunfire and cannon). O’Boyle also makes use of the waterphone, an unusual instrument that bends eerie pitches with water inside to resonate, and in fact wrote the tubular bell part with the new aluphone — a conical vibraphone-type instrument Glennie helped develop — in mind.
“The sound is quite amazing,” O’Boyle says. Glennie’s London Olympics performance of “Caliban’s Dream” featured the instrument, which has a ringing, golden tone.
With no aluphone in the United States yet, the Tacoma performance will just use bells. Other instruments for the soloist include a bell tree, wind chimes, shell wind chimes, triangles and a marimba, which leads the piece back into hope with an energetic cadenza.
“He’s really explored the golden sounds of percussion,” said Glennie, who uses an interpreter to hear on the phone, but whose Scots voice is clear and warm. “There’s wonderful contrast there.”
Both Glennie and O’Boyle arrive in Tacoma late this week. Glennie will spend much of Friday getting to know the instruments (all supplied locally) and giving a free public master class at the University of Puget Sound. Then, at the final orchestra rehearsal, both composer and soloist will collaborate with Ioannides on how to best bring O’Boyle’s sound landscape to life in the Pantages. After the initial composer-soloist conversation establishing practicalities and instrumentation, say both Glennie and O’Boyle, this final collaboration is vital, and helps to sort out any issues with the new piece.
O’Boyle says he’s excited to hear his first official Glennie commission. And Glennie is looking forward to hearing the work with the orchestra.
“It’s a bit like test-driving a car,” she says. “You might have driven it up and down your road, but to really get to know it, you have to go out on a country road, on the motorway, and so on.”
The rest of the program makes similar use of the colors of a symphony orchestra: Debussy’s moonlit “Nocturnes,” Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome,” and Ravel’s “Bolero.”
And for Tacoma audiences, it’s another step in the journey of exploring percussion as a solo instrument full of possibilities.
“Percussion in general has become much more emotional,” Glennie says of how writing for and listening to classical percussion has changed. “It’s not just about rhythm anymore. It’s more lyrical, with all the ingredients other instruments have. So we have far more scope, and audiences are having a much broader sound world brought before them.”