During rehearsals for the opening-weekend program, a set of large brake drums had been placed backstage at Powell Symphony Hall amidst the assortment of percussion instruments to be taken on- and offstage as each piece required.
Yes, real brake drums in all their industrial bulkiness, which SLSO Acting Principal Percussion John Kasica beat lightly with a mallet producing surprisingly soft, liquid tones.
"You know," Kasica tells a backstage visitor, "the very best ones ever made came off a 1955 Cadillac."
Kasica had set the bait. "Really?" the visitor responds.
"Oh yes," the percussionist replies earnestly. "Now here we have an old Corvair…."
The fact that David Robertson's inaugural weekend as music director of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra would include such a wide and exotic assortment of percussion instruments (the brake drums accompanied soprano Dawn Upshaw in Claude Vivier's Lonely Child) is a sign that the beat is back at Powell.
Moreover, for some programs, Robertson has called for the percussion section to take a prominent position upstage center, moving from the back corner of the stage area. Last December, Silvestre Revueltas's immensely crowd-pleasing work La noche de los Mayas was a percussive extravaganza, with 13 musicians beating on a variety of instruments in a rousing finale. On Wednesday, May 10, the first season of the SLSO Fusion Series concludes at the Touhill Performing Arts Center with a Percussion Festival, featuring the SLSO percussionists, percussion students from the Juilliard School, and percussion virtuoso Colin Currie. Currie joins the full Orchestra for the season finale (May 12, 13, and 14), performing James MacMillan's Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, a work that requires, says Kasica, "30 percussion instruments onstage."
A percussion revival at the SLSO is evident. Assistant Principal Timpani Thomas Stubbs offers his perspective on the evolution of the SLSO percussion section under three music directors. "Leonard Slatkin loved to do Prokofiev and Copland, which has percussion writing that is more traditional, but there's a lot of it. Our musical identity as a section was made by the way Leonard conducted Joseph Schwantner, Prokofiev, and Copland.
"With Hans Vonk," he continues, "percussion was in the background, more intellectual. But I learned a lot from Hans. He filled in some of the blanks in terms of the details in the core repertoire. With David we've come full circle. Leonard loved percussion. David loves percussion. The job is ratcheted up with David here. My colleagues in other orchestras are jealous."
Stubbs, Kasica, and Principal Timpani Richard Holmes all came out of the same class at Juilliard in the late 1960s and early 1970s. "We all went to the New York Philharmonic every week and we were able to develop with Leonard," Stubbs observes. "There's something to be said for continuity."
"Leonard would do these grandiose pieces by William Bolcom," Kasica recalls. "A work such as "Final Alice" by David Del Tredici involved a massive percussion section. I played percussion concertos by Schwantner, Minoru Miki's marimba concerto, and Ney Rosauro's marimba and vibraphone concertos."
Schwantner had a particularly close relationship with Slatkin and with the SLSO percussionists. Holmes says of the composer, "He knows exactly what the timpani can do. He knows its limitations. As a composer you don't want to write something that is so far-fetched that you can't get it played. Of all the composers for percussion, Schwantner has the greatest knowledge of its use."
Holmes finds a link between the current percussion explosion and the previous through the relationships between composers and conductors. John Adams, whose Harmonielehre opened the 2005-06 season, is of the latest generation of composers to make full use of percussive elements in his music. "From my knowledge of what he has written," says Holmes, "John goes for texture and effect in regards to my instrument. I'm beginning to appreciate John Adams's music. I have the feeling that David [Robertson] is really involved in Adams, as I found Leonard was with Schwantner."
Stubbs describes more connections between the previous SLSO percussion era with Slatkin and the current one with Robertson. For example, in the upcoming Percussion Festival, "We're going to play 'Ionisation,' one of the masterpieces for percussion by Varèse. We're going to do a Christopher Rouse piece. Both of these works we did with Leonard. We're coming full circle in this particular concert.
"The Juilliard kids are coming to join us, as well. It really is a special, unique synthesis of everybody joining hands over the years," Stubbs concludes.
In popular culture, the most recognizable percussive moments occur in the thunderous timpani effects found in Richard Strauss's "Thus Spake Zarathustra," as employed by director Stanley Kubrick in his groundbreaking film 2001: A Space Odyssey; or in the drum circles frequented by consciousness-raising groups in the 1970s and 1980s; or Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart's popularization of world music in his Planet Drum tours.
In orchestral composition, Kasica explains, "From the 1930s through the 1960s, ethnic and cultural instruments became part of classical composition‹the virtuosity of different cultures came into play. The percussionist's role contributed to more of the general sound-making."
And today? "We're in an experimental era," says Holmes.
Percussion still provides much for musicians and composers to explore, and SLSO percussionsts and audiences are going to be part of that exploration.
Eddie Silva is the publications manager of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.