Greg Youtz is leading the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra from the Amazon to the Indonesian rainforest, and he's using 30 percussion instruments to do it.
A week from today, the Tacoma composer will see the TSO give the world premiere of his Duo Concerto for percussion, which has required two players, a barrage of instruments, and almost a year of musical conversations to create it.
“I love working with percussionists,” says Youtz, a musicology professor at Pacific Lutheran University and a composer whose work is regularly performed both in the Northwest and beyond. “They don’t have 800 years of tradition behind them, like other instruments, so they’re eager to try things out.”
It’s this willingness, perhaps, plus sheer virtuosity, that made TSO director Harvey Feldman want to showcase his two percussionists, Amy Putnam and Matthew Drumm – and, unable to find a suitable work, commission Youtz to write one. Although Youtz has been connected with the symphony for years – writing program notes and giving pre-concert lectures – the orchestra has never played any of his music.
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Plenty of other ensembles in town have performed his music: The Tacoma Concert Band, the Tacoma Youth Symphony and the Regency String Quartet, as well as many PLU-based musicians. But a percussion concerto with professional symphony orchestra gives the composer a chance to go to town with complicated sounds and rhythms.
Which doesn’t mean it’s going to be complicated to listen to.
“Andy (Buelow, the TSO executive director), Harvey and I are acutely aware that the audience hasn’t been crying out for new music,” says Youtz. “So this is written to make them want more. It’s all aimed at Tacoma people. There are definitely new, unusual sounds, but they’re identifiable. And people hear this stuff all the time in the movies – I’m just using those techniques. It’s deliberately theatrical.”
The drama begins with the first few notes. The first movement, “Beginning,” is an invocation in an Indonesian rainforest: Drumm begins with a slow rainstick drizzle, followed by maraca shakes and clave clicks by Putnam. You can hear the frogs, the chirpings, the rustles, and gradually the pitched percussion comes in on a Javanese scale. There are even rare instruments such as the Brazilian cuica, used for samba, and its cousin the lion’s roar – drums with a string through the head, which is rubbed to make a squeaking or growling noise.
All of this creates some logistical challenges for the two soloists.
“We haven’t had much chance to set up all 30 instruments yet,” says Putnam, as she and Drumm rehearse in the tiny studio she shares with a harpist in the Broadway Center building. Another challenge is figuring out how to align the instruments, as some are played by both players. “It’s a logistical puzzle,” she says.
The set-up holds as much drama as the music. In the second movement, “Bravura,” a classic timpani drum-line rhythm played by Drumm is rudely interrupted by blurts and glissandi from Putnam on other instruments. A battle ensues, the orchestra loudly backing the timpani, with a cadenza featuring built-in retuning – the audience hears and sees Drumm pedaling his instruments up or down to a new pitch.
By the third movement, though, the interrupting percussionist becomes apologetic in the form of a marimba cadenza, where Drumm has to literally put his arms around Putnam to reach the notes. The final “Baccanale” is full of salsa rhythms and Latin rainforest sounds, weaving in and out of complex polyrhythms to a loud climax.
One of the most satisfying aspects of newly composed music, for performers at least, is the ability to question or even change the music to better suit the instrument. Youtz begins his pieces by scribbling the general structure on regular paper, then jotting down theme ideas on manuscript. These ideas come from all musical traditions: Youtz travels to China regularly for musical exchange trips, and recently gave workshops in Trinidad. For this concerto, he drew on everything from Latin American to Asia: “Because there’s so little percussion in the Western tradition, if you want to have any fun at all you have to go outside that tradition,” says the composer.
He writes his pieces straight through, using pencil and paper or a MIDI keyboard on computer, and then the fun begins – sending a copy to the musicians. For the concerto, that meant one movement every couple of months last year.
“As (Putnam and Drumm) explored each movement, they’d send me e-mails suggesting small changes,” says Youtz. “Those were actually quite fun.”
“Greg’s full of ideas,” says Putnam. “He’s like Wikipedia. (After we met in the beginning to discuss concepts) I wondered what he was going to do. Then we had questions – what are your thoughts here? What are you trying to do? In a lot of ways, we’re just the pawns, asked to be here, rehearse this. But we are also the artists, bringing ideas to the score.”
In fact, a week before the concert, Putnam’s still trying to bring in an idea. “Amy even has some Asian elephant bells, which she wants to add in,” says Youtz. “I’m not sure where to put them.”
In all, the concert – which also includes Debussy’s atmospheric “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” and Schubert’s Ninth Symphony – promises a lot of excitement. As Drumm points out, there aren’t many concertos for two percussionists.
“Percussion is new,” says Putnam. “It’s very exciting. The sky’s the limit.”