Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Evelyn Glennie @ Usher Hall, Edinburgh

18 August 2007

Scotland may be a shadow of its former nicotine-stained self, but as the audience took their seats at the Usher Hall it was difficult to ignore the thick bulwark of smoke in the air.

Rebus would approve, at least: business as usual for Evelyn Glennie, then.

Glennie exemplifies a number of oxymorons: the solo percussionist, the layman’s classical musician and, perhaps more tellingly, the outspoken Scotswoman.

She managed to touch upon all of these personas in a night that excited and confounded in roughly equal measures. Confounded, perhaps, because while the Usher Hall audience’s age was skewed somewhat towards the over 50s, Glennie’s program was defiantly modern, her focus on 20th-Century pieces reflecting that the concept of the solo percussionist is a particuarly modern conceit.

And so we began with Glennie and her flowerpots. Through the afore-mentioned haze of smoke, she crossed legs to play Frederic Rzewski’s To the Earth, a spoken word and earthen pot piece that made the most of its melodic simplicity, but retained something of the pretension of the coffee-house poet.

However, any detours into vaingloriousness were quickly quashed by Glennie’s simple and engaging between-piece banter. Managing to both educate and entertain, she quashed any fears in the audience by quickly launching into Jovan Zivkovic’s Fluctus, a truly virtuoso marimba piece that worked equally well as music or as frantic choreography.

There was contrast, though: Fluctus’ anger was well matched by Glennie’s next piece, a collection of children’s pieces by Matthias Schmitt. This was fantastically melodic simplicity, managing to echo both Satie and Debussy. But just as Glennie threatened to relax into a home crowd pleasing performance, Javier Alvares’s electro-acoustic Temazcal swamped us in sound, with Glennie providing live maraca accompaniment.

It was a night of enlightenment, but not all of Glennie’s choices delighted. Her arrangement of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor may have been, as she breathlessly announced later, its ‘world premiere’, but the transmigration of the piece to marimba added little. The night’s one other revelation was Glennie’s solo rendition of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, usually requiring a second performer. It was no surprise to see the self-confident Glennie play one piece on the wood blocks while accompanying herself with her feet: a short piece, but extra percussion was provided by various jaws hitting the floor.

Glennie later stated that she was trying to get Reich to compose pieces for solo percussionists. It would be a shame to deny the audience, though, as her imaginative ways of circumventing the composer’s wishes are truly mind-boggling. This was a concert that combined proprioception with percussion, to excellent effect.

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