Mallets and hammers

Symphony shines spotlight on percussion soloists

Young Artist Auditions winner Eric Whitmer on marimba.

Young Artist Auditions winner Eric Whitmer on marimba.

Photo by Sesar Sanchez

North State Symphony: Masterworks 3, Soloistic Sensations, Saturday, Feb. 23, Laxson Auditorium.

A concerto for marimba? You bet.

The North State Symphony’s performance of Brazilian composer Ney Rosauro’s Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra (1986) was one of the highlights of a delightfully diverse concert, Soloistic Sensations, Saturday evening (Feb. 23) in Laxson Auditorium.

But, isn’t the marimba a percussion instrument and thus ill-suited for the concerto form? Well, the piano is a percussion instrument, after all, and that hasn’t stopped composers from writing thousands of piano concertos. Besides, soloist Eric Whitmer, winner of the 2018 Young Artist Auditions in the high school division, did a wonderful job of coaxing pleasing melodies out of his instrument.

He was able to do that because he’s become expert at using the four-mallet grip developed by Leigh Howard Stevens in the 1970s. As can be imagined, it’s not easy for a two-handed person to master a technique that uses four mallets simultaneously, but Whitmer has done it. The Stevens grip allows him to play fast but softly, lessening the percussive impact of the delivery and emphasizing lyricism in the slow movements.

According to the symphony’s program notes (by Theodore Bell), Rosauro has published more than 50 pieces for percussion, of which the Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra is the most widely played. It’s easy to see why that is: The piece alternates between the deliciously soft melodies for which Brazilian popular music is famous and dazzlingly fast percussion tempos that showcase the soloist’s skill.

I had never heard the instrument played in this lovely way, and, judging from my fellow audience members’ delighted applause, neither had they.

As mentioned above, this concert featured a diverse set of selections. It opened with Giuseppe Verdi’s “Overture” to his opera Nabucco (1841), a colorful Romantic piece that the orchestra attacked with confidence. It then tackled Sergei Prokofiev’s magnificent Piano Concerto No. 1 (1911), followed by by Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (1847).

Rhapsody is of course familiar because of its appropriation by Hollywood for use in cartoons and movies. As Bell notes, it first appeared in a 1929 Mickey Mouse cartoon (“The Opry House”) and subsequently in a wide range of cartoons (Disney’s Farmyard Symphony, for example) and movies before working its way onto television (Sesame Street in 1979, among others).

That highly familiar tune was followed by the refreshingly modern marimba concerto, and that in turn gave way to the evening’s final work, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s extraordinarily rich Capriccio Espagnol (1887). In its Romantic colorfulness, it was a perfect bookend to the Nabucco “Overture” that began the concert.

But the evening’s highlight—even more so than the marimba concerto—was the symphony’s brilliant performance of the Prokofiev piano concerto, featuring as soloist Chuang Li, another Young Artist Auditions winner, this time in the college division.

I’ve listened to many recordings of this concerto, but Saturday evening I realized that no recorded version fully does it justice. It’s a hugely powerful piece that would be considered bombastic were it not so beautiful and moving. It’s also one that can be performed satisfactorily only by an orchestra and soloist who have the confidence and skill to bring it off.

Like the rest of the audience, I was on my feet when it ended, grateful to Li, Music Director Scott Seaton and the rest of the orchestra for creating this transcendent experience.