The ensemble Third Coast Percussion brought a strong program to the Atlas on Friday night. If only it had been a little more strongly played.
That’s not to say there wasn’t a lot to like. Cleaving to traditional programming convention, the group offered three pieces, presented in chronological order. The oldest and most classic dated from 1942: John Cage’s “Credo in Us,” although not played on original instruments, because the radio of the original score was replaced by sound samples from a laptop computer.
There followed Frederic Rzewski's “Coming Together,” from 1972. Here, too, Third Coast went a step further than the letter of the score, very much in the composer’s spirit; the spoken text (words written by Sam Melville, who died in the riots at Attica State Prison in 1971) was pieced together in snippets read by dozens of different voices (“from all around America,” the program notes said).
The evening concluded with a significant work by a current composing wunderkind: David T. Little, a former rock drummer who has been making a stir on the new-music scene with works such as “Soldier Songs” (widely regarded as one of the most significant new operas of recent years). Little is also the newly appointed director of composition at Shenandoah University, where he’s helping to energize a new-music program with a variety of concerts. The piece Third Coast played on Friday, “Haunt of Last Nightfall,” was one the ensemble commissioned and premiered in 2010, and if it’s not an opera, it’s certainly dramatic. It was inspired by the 1981 massacre of an entire village, El Mozote, in El Salvador. Little, taking the stage before the piece was played, observed that it was out of place to hope that the audience would “enjoy” such a work but did hope that we might be moved.
The piece was certainly moving, and highly accomplished. It confirmed Little’s status as a composer to keep one’s ear on, with its control, its variations and its drama, which managed to go beyond the kind of banging utterance of pain that one might expect of a percussion piece about atrocities into something more nuanced, probing and profound.
Indeed, all three pieces on the program were powerful: three snapshots of different periods in recent American history (Cage’s was written after the Pearl Harbor bombing), all connecting to the world around them, free of the academic abstraction that is sometimes still stereotyped as part of new music.
So it was odd that, individually and together, they didn’t make more of an impact. And this was largely attributable to the performance, which was accomplished but slightly distanced, without the visceral immediacy that both the instruments and the works seemed to demand. When two or more instruments chimed in together, it was almost a surprise; despite the constant underlying, preprogrammed sounds, the players did not always seem to share a beat.
The whole idea of preprogramming worked as a distancing technique, starting with the Cage: Using planned sounds rather than an arbitrary radio channel removed an element of chance that was a signature of the original work. Even the lighting seemed fussy and overdone: The Little piece opened with red and green alternating on the backdrop in rapid succession — at once jarring and inappropriately aestheticized, decorative not artistic, like Christmas lights gone wild.
Third Coast’s new recording of the Little piece will be released this month, and it is certainly worth hearing if you want an introduction to a composer who is happily placed to play a role in the Washington scene. His “Soldier Songs” is scheduled for the Atlas in May, but word is that the performance is under threat for lack of funds. Someone start a Kickstarter campaign, quickly; I may not have loved this particular performance, but the music was thrilling, and important.