By Erik Poehlman
What makes a thing a whole, a unity? Thoughts of how parts separate and come together, how contrasts remain connected by their differences and enable us to return to the familiar, were prominent during Saturday evening’s concert (Saturday, Apr 22, 2023) at the Pantages Theater, titled Dancing Mallets & Pulsing Percussion. Symphony Tacoma, led by conductor Sarah Ioannides, gave a driving and joyful performance of works old and new, including the world premiere of Nick DiBerardino’s Double Percussion Concerto for which they were joined by the night’s featured soloists, Garrett Arney and Mari Yoshinaga of Arx Duo.
The program opened with Bela Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances, where Symphony Tacoma expertly wove the delicate voices of Bartok’s writing into a tapestry of spacious harmonies. The rhythms and orchestration of the work created an intentionally sparse and highly purposeful texture, where the quality of the instrumental voices gave new life to the Romanian folk melodies that Bartok sought to share and preserve in his day, revived in relevance by Symphony Tacoma’s efforts. The Dances grew in intensity, driving energy through to the last moment, perfectly setting up the striking arrival of Nick DiBerardino’s Double Percussion Concerto.
As though in answer to an unspoken question, the full weight of the orchestra opened from an explosive point, joined by Garrett Arney and Mari Yoshinaga on a pair of marimbas. Immediately the parts diverged, as contrasting rhythms and themes scattered across the hall. An instrument would begin a line to have another finish it across the orchestra, patterns of ostinato rhythms created by lines passed across the ensemble while other instruments wove together musical lines impossible to play alone, achievable only through the skilled cooperation of practiced artistry. Amidst this all was arx duo, playing on two sets of percussion instruments what would be impossible for any one musician, an idea which DiBerardino and arx duo wished to explore from the Concerto’s early stages. arx duo played with a flowing coordination found only in musicians who share an absolute trust, wielding their virtuosic ability not in bombastic flourishes but rather as one mind, a glimmering texture that danced through the orchestra with the detail and intimacy of a string quartet. When the soloists diverged, it was with even greater subtlety than the contrasts demonstrated in the orchestral parts. At one point, through a technique called phasing, the soloists shifted in and out of time with one another and the orchestra, as Symphony Tacoma sustained an open dance reminiscent of the Bartok they played earlier, or perhaps the Beethoven that had yet to arrive. At last, the entire ensemble came together, now complete in their magnitude and musical themes, sending the premiere of DiBerardino’s work into an unstoppable sea of sound that converged to a single moment, just as it had begun. In a conversation the day before, arx duo discussed the Double Percussion Concerto, “When someone sees a concerto for percussion, they expect to hear something loud, with virtuosic and exposed percussion parts, but [the Double Percussion Concerto] is actually very delicate, detailed, and in harmony with the ensemble . . . It’s not just a cool percussion piece, it’s a cool piece with a feature of percussion.” The audience on Saturday night responded with an immediate and enthusiastic reaction, as one concert-goer exclaimed afterwards, “It blew my mind!”
The last work on the program was Beethoven’s well-known Symphony No. 7, which felt like a return to home from its very onset. The Double Percussion Concerto contains many influences from Beethoven’s music, and the arrival of the Seventh gave context to the homage of the previous work. Beethoven’s symphonies are well known and remembered, and the familiarity and enthusiasm with which the orchestra performed was that of someone greeting an old friend. Throughout the work we find Beethoven writing simple themes for sections in unison, which diverged and grew more complex, only to finally return to its roots. The placement of Symphony No.7 at the end of this program is like a refreshing breeze,
reminding us of the centuries of influence and development that came before, of the context that would diverge and one day arrive in the works featured this night.