The second instalment of Nonclassical’s “Pioneers of Percussion” Festival last Saturday at Oval Space in east London paired two classics of the percussion repertoire with two new works, and featured the young and ambitious Multi-Story Orchestra. It is a great testament to the quality of these new works that they not only held their own, but were indeed the highlights of the evening.

Joby Burgess, Christopher Stark and Multi-Storey Orchestra rehearse the Concerto for Bass Drum and O © Kat Waters
Joby Burgess, Christopher Stark and Multi-Storey Orchestra rehearse the Concerto for Bass Drum and O
© Kat Waters

The concert opened with Béla Bartók’s justly beloved Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, from 1936. With the intricate chromatic fugue of the first movement, the energetic folk influences of the second and fourth movements, and the colorful eeriness of the second movement (which was famously used in Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining), it nicely encapsulates many of Bartók’s compositional preoccupations.

The percussion (played by George English, Elsa Bradley and Joe Richards), piano (Kate Whitley) and celeste (Siwan Rhys) made an excellent unit, playing energetically and precisely together. Unfortunately, this was the strings’ weakest performance of the night, with significant intonation issues and some ensemble problems. The second movement in particular dragged and lost momentum. Conductor Christopher Stark also seemed a bit tentative at times.

Stark and the orchestra made up for it in the next piece, Gabriel Prokofiev’s brilliant and well-played Concerto for Bass Drum, with soloist Joby Burgess. I had a hard time imagining ahead of time how Prokofiev would pull this off – how do you make a solo bass drum interesting enough to be the centre of attention for a multi-movement orchestral work? But he succeeded well beyond my expectations, with a piece that was a quality work in its own right, even aside from the novelty of a bass drum soloist.

He managed this by drawing an impressive array of compelling sounds out of the bass drum, and by effectively setting it off against the ensemble. The first movement of the four which were played began with low rumbles in the bass drum, against dark, low chords in the orchestra. Aptly titled “Bass War”, it progressed into more intense and driving music. Near the end, the soloist attached a rope to the bass drum and bowed it, sounding like a lion’s roar or a distorted double bass. In the second movement (“in the Steppes”), Burgess played the instrument like an enormous hand drum, drawing different colours and pitches out of it by hitting its surface in different places, as well as hitting the bottom and sides of the drum. The third movement (“four to the floor”) featured constant pulses in the bass drum, evoking club and dance music, but filtered through a modern, dissonant harmonic language. The fourth movement (“May Speed”) was a wild, jagged dance, whose madly dashing brass and woodwind lines evoked Dutch composer Louis Andriessen.

What was really striking about this work was how it combined rhythmic grooves and references to vernacular styles with a thoroughly modernist language of burbling textures and harmonic dissonance. In music today, for whatever reason, steady pulse and vernacular influence tend to be paired with harmonic consonance and tonality. It almost seems inevitable that they should go together. But Prokofiev proves quite eloquently that this need not be the case. In some ways parallel to Bartók before him (was he thinking about this when he made the programme?), he combines vernacular source material with uncompromisingly modern techniques to yield something fresh and vital.

Following the Prokofiev was another quite striking work, Kate Whitley’s Split (2012), for a solo clarinetist (Rozenn Le Trionnaire), solo percussionist (Jude Carlton) and orchestra. The piece began with atonal clarinet wails, clattering percussion colours and runs of clusters in the strings. It was dramatic, aggressive, and strident. By the end, it was lusciously rich string chords and plaintive, almost romantic clarinet and vibraphone melodies. I still don’t quite know how she managed to get from this opening to this closing, other than that she did it seamlessly and convincingly. I thought I knew what sort of piece we were in for at the beginning, but it ended up becoming something entirely different. It created a very moving affect, with the beauty and tenderness of the ending heightened all the more by the clamour of where it came from.

The concert closed with Iannis Xenakis’ classic 1975 solo percussion work Psappha, in a stellar and commanding performance by Joby Burgess. While the Bartók and Xenakis are both fine works, it struck me that the newer works on the programme displayed much more subtlety and sophistication in their percussion writing. Whether this indicates that the art of composing for percussion has made rapid advances in recent years, or that Prokofiev and Whitley are uniquely sensitive composers, it bodes well for the future.