Arts

Oregon Symphony Percussionists Take Center Stage

OPB | Sept. 19, 2013 12:05 a.m. | Updated: Sept. 20, 2013 6:28 a.m. | Portland

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This weekend the Oregon Symphony formally kicks off its season with concerts Saturday and Monday. One piece will challenge a sometimes-overlooked section of the ensemble — the percussionists. All five of them will be asked to stretch in new directions for a bench-clearing composition.

Niel DePonte has never played anything quite like this before.

“I was counting on the score,” DePonte said of the piece. “There are 32 types of instruments — something like 55 to 60 individual objects of percussion we’re going to hit.”

DePonte is the Symphony’s principal percussionist.

Niel DePonte demonstrates, from the living room of his home in southwest Portland.

Niel DePonte demonstrates, from the living room of his home in southwest Portland.

April Baer / Oregon Public Broadcasting

In 1990 when Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu wrote “From Me Flows What You Call Time” as an anniversary tribute to Carnegie Hall, Deponte was aware of it. He knew the percussionists it was written for. So last year, the Symphony’s artistic administrator told him a Takemitsu piece was coming up on the schedule.

“I said, ‘What’s it called?’” DePonte remembered, “and he said, ‘From Me Flows What You Call Time.’ And I said, ‘ Uh-oh.’”

Composer Toru Takemitsu, who died in 1996, devised many pieces that incorporated Asian sounds into Western classical music settings. In this one, he said he meant to evoke the flow of music out of a concert hall. The concerto asks DePonte and his section colleagues to emerge from their usual position at the back of the stage. They’ll fan out in a grid, responsible for multiple instruments — so many that some had to be rented from out-of-state.

DePonte says, “I think of Sergio [Carreno, another OSO percussionist performing this weekend], who’s got an enormous set-up: seven Pakistan noah bells, five Thai gongs, two Japanese temple bowls on a kettle drum, six Chinese water gongs, a pair of crotales, an anklung, which is a wooden instrument, sounds like bamboo.”

That’s in addition to Carreno’s antique cymbals, an Arabic drum and wind chimes.

“To figure out how to position the equipment so he can get from one place to the other very smoothly,” DePonte says, “there’s a whole logistical set of decisions that have to be made.”

Composer Toru Takemitsu sketched a specific layout for how the percussionists should appear onstage.

Composer Toru Takemitsu sketched a specific layout for how the percussionists should appear onstage.

Brent Bowden is the Oregon Symphony’s stage manager. It’s his job to get everything needed for the piece onstage, making sure it all fits.

“It’s required a bit more intricate choreography for our intermission change,” he said. “We had to bring in a couple extra crewmen to help set up. It really hasn’t been that much different than any other performance. It’s just more stuff.” And Bowden said his organizational skills were more than up to the job. “I’m pretty good at Tetris.”

The concerto refers to five colors, representing the elements. Those colors will be repeated in the percussionists’ clothing, and in ribbons hung specially in the concert hall to operate wind chimes ranging in length from 18 inches to more than four feet.

Jon Greeney will be onstage as the principal timpanist for the Oregon Symphony. He was thrilled when he heard the Takemitsu piece was on the schedule.

“It’s probably the only chance I’ll have,” he said, “to be able to perform something in the concerto realm with my colleagues.”

Often, a percussionist featured in a concerto is playing solos, in the context of the rest of the symphony.

“I always felt like the world of the soloist is kind of lonely,” Greeney said. “We don’t have to worry about that in a piece like this.”

On the contrary, the percussionists will be improvising in close collaboration with each other.  That’s new turf for the classical musicians, who traditionally stick to the score. But Greeney says he’s not nervous — yet.

“The improvisations will be more about mood and colors than about how impressive it can be.”

DePonte says everyone’s concerned about making sure all these elements come together. But he says everyone’s also smitten with trying to make this difficult composition work. He calls Takemitsu’s work “one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever played.”

The piece is the Oregon Symphony’s hat tip to Portland’s Japanese Garden, which turns 50 this year.

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