On paper, before the show, the National Symphony Orchestra’s program this week looked like a piece of programming timidity. There was a new work, yes — Avner Dorman’s percussion concerto “Frozen in Time” — but it was sandwiched between two staples of the repertory: Mozart’s “Haffner” symphony and Dvorak’s ubiquitous Ninth Symphony, “From the New World.”
I was wrong, however, to assume that the NSO was seeking to assuage patrons averse to contemporary music by offering them not one, but two familiar symphonies. The reason for the juxtaposition, it turned out, is that Dorman has Mozart references and a “New World” quote in his concerto.
It was, in fact, quite striking to hear the rousing theme of the final movement hammered out by the orchestra shortly after the percussion soloist, Martin Grubinger, offered a quotation of it, embedded in a veritable conglomerate of musical quotes in Dorman’s score that found visual approximation in the battalion of instruments — vibraphones and marimbas, cowbells and glockenspiels and an array of tam tams, cymbals, snare drums and many more — drawn up in a loose rectangle at one side of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall stage.
And for once, the contemporary work was the most popular thing on the program.
“Frozen in Time” is a rarity: a contemporary percussion concerto that has become, with more than 60 performances around the world, something approaching a repertory staple, at least in contemporary music terms. It’s easy to see why. It is wide-ranging, appealing, breathtakingly virtuosic, sophisticated enough to appeal to an audience of classical aficionados, and approachable enough to appeal to people who have never been to an orchestra concert.
Oh, and it has Grubinger, the 30-year-old percussion wunderkind who commissioned it, who has to date been its exclusive performer and who made his NSO debut Thursday night — a young man who has the build and physical ease of a basketball player turned choreographer, moving between instruments and mallets with fluid grace and pulling amazing clusters of sounds in joyful handfuls out of the fortifications of instruments around him.
The work is arranged in standard three-movement form, each movement assigned a loose geographical region — “IndoAfrica,” “Eurasia” and “The Americas” — that mainly offers a way to categorize the families and colors of sounds flowing past. The concerto would be almost as much at home presented between a gamelan orchestra and a steel-drum band as between two classical works. “Almost,” because for all its bright, fresh pizzazz, it is unmistakably born of the classical canon.
Still, it gives Dorman scope to group together unlikely families of sound. The second movement — opening with an aching melody (can something so liquid and smooth really come from a so-called percussion instrument?) and continuing with gentle aureoles of metallic sound, kissing the air — manages to evoke both a Classical symphony and an Eastern temple, nearly at the same time. And the final, “Americas” movement was an exuberant jumble of sounds, from the Dvorak quote to jazz motifs to evocations of Broadway, Leonard Bernstein being the obvious comparison in that he was another composer who exulted in headlong syncopations and the brilliance of percussion.
Christoph Eschenbach, who has championed both Grubinger and the piece with other orchestras, led, or perhaps followed, Grubinger along with an orchestra that had a few extra colors of its own — including saxophone, piano, celesta and some additional percussion. Grubinger is such an amazing rhythm machine that it’s hard not to follow him, but there were certainly a few coordination problems when the orchestra’s own distant percussionist was playing at the same time. In fairness, the Concert Hall stage offers some challenges to players who want to hear each other, especially if they are sitting far apart.
For this concert, the cellos sat to Eschenbach’s right, and the two violin sections were grouped together, something that made not a whit of difference in Eschenbach’s body language as he propelled everyone through an emphatic Haffner and an equally emphatic “New World.”
In short: The rest of the evening was business as usual.
The concert repeats Saturday. On Friday, the orchestra will offer a “Beyond the Score” presentation of the “New World” symphony.