Concert review: The RPO and NEXUS a deftly planned collision of classical precision and spontaneous percussion

07:43 PM, May 10, 2013

Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

If you go

What: The percussion quartet NEXUS with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, Peter Bay conducting; plus other works.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St.
Tickets: From $15 to $82, available at (585) 454-2100, or the box office.

The stage looked like a promoter’s double-booking error Thursday night. It was as though the austere, black-and-white Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra was being forced to share Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre with wind-chime vendors from the Clothesline Festival.

But this proved to be a delightful, intense and deftly planned collision of classical precision and spontaneous rhythm. The collaboration between the RPO and the Canadian percussion group NEXUS on Toru Takemitsu’s From me flows what you call Time was inspiring. (It returns to the Eastman Theatre on Saturday, along with the program of more traditional orchestral fare and the world premiere of Karen Tanaka’s beautiful Water of Life.)

Tanaka’s work, Lili Boulanger’s D’un matin de printemps (On a Spring Morning) and two works by Maurice Ravel make for a nicely diverse second half of the program. The five-minute Boulanger was as crisp as an unfettered horse galloping through a meadow newly awakened from winter’s oppression. The concert-closing Le Tombeau de Couperin was the equivalent of your local bar band interpreting The Beatles: overly familiar, but nevertheless welcome. And most of the horn section gets to go home early with the string-enraptured Ravel pieces.

Tanaka, a 52-year-old Japanese-born composer now living in California, has had past works performed by the RPO as well as other orchestras. The new piece, featuring Grace Wong on harp, follows Tanaka’s previous themes of nature. Vibraphones, bells and small percussion details emerge like light birds, while the composition shifts between moments of repose and crescendo — one of which peaks with the ringing of a gong. Water of Life is, indeed, the ebb and flow of water and life.

But the night belonged to the sparkling collaboration between the RPO and NEXUS on Takemitsu’s From me flows what you call Time. Sprightly hired-gun conductor Peter Bay, back with the baton on Saturday, is the musical director of the Austin Symphony Orchestra and has worked with about 65 other orchestras. He’s perhaps the perfect man for this job, with an intimate knowledge of all the working parts on this weekend’s construction; he has led the RPO in the past, including the recording of a 1994 album, Voices, that features NEXUS.

Takemitsu’s piece opened with the lone flute voice of Rebecca Gilbert, as the men of NEXUS — Bob Becker, Bill Cahn (an Eastman professor), Russell Hartenberger and Garry Kvistad, and joined by Ryan Scott on this tour — slowly filed in from the side aisles. Each wore a different colored shirt, symbolizing the streamers of the Tibetan “Wind Horse” custom. Each also played tiny Tibetan prayer cymbals.

These priests of percussion are quite familiar with the complex work, having played on its 1990 debut — a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Carnegie Hall. The big question: With NEXUS outmanned, would the RPO step all over the group? No. From me flows what you call Time has its dynamic moments, but it is a contemplative work. NEXUS worked with bells, bowls, drums, gongs, cymbals and all manner of clattering and shaking objects dangling from racks set about the stage, alongside wood blocks, vibraphones and glockenspiels. The RPO laid down a lush soundtrack, backing off when the delicate NEXUS percussion needed room, although there were moments when the gongs and cymbals thundered to the challenge of the room. The music was as much about the space between the notes as it was about the notes themselves.

From me flows what you call Time is a piece of great restraint, for the musician as well as the audience. It closed with the shaking of chimes hanging from racks, producing a rainfall of tinkling notes that slowly faded until only one stubborn little chime remained … ringing … ringing … barely perceptible, until it too was gone. And only then did the patient audience in the Eastman Theatre break into applause.