Discovering Evelyn Glennie

Classical concert percussionist Evelyn Glennie came to Virginia Beach's Sandler Center on May 15th after a performance in Philadelphia, stopped by Lowes and bought some clay flower pots and lined them up on the floor on the front of the stage by size. A little porcelain pot finished the row. She appeared, a slim, supple woman in a blue, form - fitting shift with shaggy, blonde shoulder length hair. She looked vulnerable with bare feet and a large beaten-silver medallion at her throat, one of her EG jewelry designs, with an array of percussion instruments arranged on center stage with a gleaming concert marimba flanked by drums. She folded her long limbs to sit behind the pots and sticks in hand, began to play. Her commanding presence, her strength in that moment became visible. There was no barrier between audience and performer. With poetry recited while she created exciting music that danced and flew around the Sandler Center performing space, we heard To the Earth (1985) by American composer Frederic Rzewski (b.1938), asking that the earth's many blessings continue to fall on all of our lives.

Speaking with an attractive Scottish brogue, Ms. Glennie talked to us many times during the concert about the music and the composers for her instruments. She pointed out that percussion instrument design is an ongoing development and that the Steinway version of the marimba has not yet been invented. She then introduced a piece by Nebojsa Zickovic, Ilijas (the name of a small town in Bosnia, formerly part of Yugoslavia) that uses folk scales and rhythms in a three-part rhapsody. After a fast second movement Zickovic returns to the original material and mood of the slow opening section, developing it further using typical marimba patterns only to shift from one strange rhythmic pattern to another.

Sechs Miniaturen (Six Miniatures for Children) by Matthias Schmidt (b.1958) for marimba followed. The dramatic first movement had Ms. Glennie playing with a single mallet in her left hand, two in the right. When she paused to add a mallet the audience clapped, not allowing us to digest what we had briefly heard. Fog rolled in during the ominous second miniature, followed by the hymn-like third. In number four many repeated notes built the sound, subsequent sections built with quieter and quieter strokes - lovely music. There was a surprising use of silence between sound clusters. The whole fifth movement felt quiet, leading into the rich, full, but not aggressive, final movement.

A stunning electronic piece, Temazcal ("Water that burns" in the ancient Nahuatl language of the Aztecs) by Javier Alvarez born in 1956 in Mexico City, was realized while he was a post graduate student at the Royal College of Music in London in 1984. The eight minute long piece is for surround tape and live maracas. There is a wild dance-like quality to her choreography. As tempos get faster and then slower and the recorded sound intensifies, our amazement grows as she plays on-and-on with superb concentration. As the tempo winds down we hear a Spanish tune on guitar enriched by the rhythm of the rattles moving like dancers in space.

The first set closed with Barracuda Solo (2006) by Netherlands composer Jacob Ter Veldhuis (b.1951). There is a dimple in the beat of the marimba from the beginning. Jacob TV (as he is known), says he is fed up with the doom and damnation he finds in so much contemporary art. His music is a quest for beauty that is often expressed in visual terms. Ms. Glennie played the bass drum behind her using a foot pedal and reached to the far right of the marimba to strike a small drum array and cymbal. Here we had a visual to accompany the sound. It was all very exciting.

Afer intermission we heard Two Movements for Marimba (1965) by Japanese composer Tashimitsu Tanaka (b.1930). The opening is energetic, creating a warm feeling. The second movement opens with quiet, otherworldly chordal structures, followed by a fast and furious second section of enormous energy. Ms. Glennie's vocal utterance as she finished the piece was a valedictory exclamation, one of several of the evening.

In introducing the most remarkable piece of the evening, she spoke about the cultural relationship of Scotland's bagpipes and dancing and the snare drum. She told us that percussion instruments produce a very angular sound and that the challenge is to create a more smooth, legato one. She suggested that the entire hall can become the instrument and she demonstrated this by playing Prim (Prime) by Áskell Masson (b.1953), one of Iceland's leading composers. Prim is based on a rhythmic pattern which the first fifteen of the prime numbers give when used as 32nd notes as a basic unit. All very esoteric but the reality was a gripping experience. A single spotlight focused on Ms. Glennie as she played a solo snare drum. The variety of tones is rich, determined by the part of the drumstick used, where the strike is made on the drumhead - center, margin, the steel body, or rim. There were scratching sounds on the head - one stick, two sticks struck together or separately, slow or fast, pauses or none within the tempo. As many quick strikes were made, like magic the overtones in the room built up to reinforce each other, gamboling from surface to surface creating a ringing drone that went on and on with increasing tension and urgency. It was as if the sound was concentrated in the back of the hall while the drumming continued at breakneck speed, but with an odd beat here and there to heighten our awareness. Softer drum strikes gave a softer drone rumble but higher pitched. It was as if a great circular motion was winding down to rest, breathless. A final explosion of drum strikes ends the piece. The memory of the resonance in my being informs me still.

Next came Steve Reich (b.1936 NYC) Clapping Music (1972). At the time of the composition Reich and his ensemble were touring Europe carrying 2000 pounds of equipment and instruments. His desire to simplify led to this piece for two people, four hands, no piano. Ms. Glennie, using two wood blocks and a foot pedaled instrument, played it as a solo. There is a fixed, repeating pattern in one hand while the second hand moves abruptly, after a number of repeats, from unison to one beat ahead, then two and so on, until it is back in unison.

Rhythmic Caprice by Leigh Howard Stevens (b.1973 Orange, NJ) was the last selection and perhaps the ultimate virtuoso show piece for solo marimba. Stevens, a marimbaist, is a pivotal person in the development of concert technique. This was his first composition. Using limited melodic and harmonic materials, he created a great variety of sounds. Rhythms range from simple to complex to polyrhythmic, to driving, to spasmodic, returning to a single rhythm to end. Using the wooden handle of the mallet, using head and hands to strike simultaneously and the whole length of both handles produced a cluster sound added to the colors we heard. It had a gypsy music flavor.

She gave us two encores, the first on bongo drums and brief vocals and a lyrically dreamy second one on marimba with gorgeous low notes and a soft ending. She flew out to London later that night. Ms. Glennie has no entourage. She thanked the Sandler Center lighting crew and sound technical staff and the folks that brought the instruments from Charlotte, NC. What she brought was her person, talent and creativity.

In her publicity she is billed as a deaf performer. She performs barefoot to feel the music through her feet. She says: "I am not totally deaf, I am profoundly deaf. Profound deafness covers a wide range of symptoms, although it is commonly taken to mean that the quality of the sound heard is not sufficient to understand the spoken word from sound alone. With no other sound interfering, I can usually hear someone speaking although I cannot understand them without the additional input of lip-reading." More information can be found in her "Hearing Essay" online at www.evelyn.co.uk/live/hearing_essay.htm

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