Evelyn Glennie performs an ambitious evening of music with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra
At the Orpheum Theatre on Saturday, September 28
The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra had been promising its 95th season would “kick off with a bang”, with legendary solo percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie performing a newly commissioned work by Canadian composer Randolph Peters. But an altogether different barrage of sound emanated from the Orpheum stage come showtime: that of self-congratulatory politicians.
After artistic director Bramwell Tovey had led the orchestra in his customary “O Canada” season opener, Premier Christy Clark and Vancouver city councillor Elizabeth Ball appeared to usher in two new (and deserving) inductees to the B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame: Tovey, who earlier this summer was also named to the Order of Canada; and the VSO itself.
The audience was polite and obliging—apart from one heckler who yelled something at Clark about more funding for mental health. The ever-charismatic Tovey seized on that when introducing Peters’s new work. “Speaking of mental health...” he riffed, before he and the composer explained that the percussion concerto Musicophilia was inspired by famed neurologist-author Oliver Sacks’s book of the same name.
The first movement, “Amusia”, describes a condition in which the listener cannot make sense of music. Glennie scraped and clattered on the strings of an open piano, while the orchestra howled and shivered with ghostly glissandos and trembling col legno (playing with the wooden part of the bow) passages—only to end, comically, with the brass section slowly letting the air out of balloons with a squeal.
“Mathieu’s Tango”, the second movement, is a straightforward tango—only with the soloist playing the role of a sufferer of beat deafness, unable to find the pulse. Here, Glennie tapped wood blocks with abandon in a hiccupy rhythm that never quite met the beat of the orchestra, a task that could not have been easy to pull off for the world’s most preeminent percussionist.
The third movement, “Hallucinations”, is based on the experience of composer John Corigliano, who has constant hallucinations of music. With the orchestra conjuring various distorted quotations of works by Corigliano and others, Glennie insistently pounded out her own melodies on a xylophone, overcome in the final bars that mournfully referenced Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. In the fourth movement, Glennie beat on pots and pans in an effort to scare away three persistent earworms provided by the orchestra: a tango; the infernal “It’s a Small World” tune; and the melody from Maurice Ravel’s Bolero (a piece that later closed the program). “L-DOPA”, the fifth movement, featured Glennie on a variety of drums, evoking the experience of Parkinson’s patients whose treatment can cause them to walk in a rhythmic pattern.
The final movement, “Permanent Present Tense”, was an evocative depiction of a patient with a seven-second memory who nonetheless is able to play music by Johann Sebastian Bach perfectly: ghostly, disjointed repetitions of short phrases thrummed, until a Bach keyboard study quotation crept in on the marimba, bringing with it a sense of peace and, briefly, order.
It was, all told, an ambitious piece for both performers and audience, but an ultimately satisfying flight of musical and intellectual fancy. The real delight of the evening came much later, when Glennie made a surprise return for the last bars of Bolero. In front of the orchestra, she sidled up to principal percussionist Vern Griffiths and pounded out the repetitive snare rhythm on her own drum with barely contained glee. It was a moment of sheer musical pleasure, cementing the love affair between Glennie and the city’s newest Entertainment Hall of Famers.