Los Angeles Music Preview: SŌ PERCUSSION & THE LOS ANGELES PHILHARMONIC (Disney Hall)

by Tony Frankel on September 29, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

LANG, A BANG, AND THE SŌ PERCUSSION GANG

They call themselves “musical innovators, collaborators: Brooklyn-bred and globally minded.” Eric Cha-Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, and Jason Treuting, the endlessly inventive quartet which constitute Sō Percussion, will be joining the Los Angeles Philharmonic for its season opener, which plays Oct. 2-5. The indefatigable group—which has an extensive discography—tours internationally, and works with our greatest modern composers, including Steve Reich, Paul Lansky, Steven Mackey, Oscar Bettison, and Arvo Pärt.

Sō Percussion LOGOAn encounter with David Lang, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and co-founder of New York’s Bang on a Can, yielded Sō Percussion’s first commissioned piece: the 36 minute, three movement the so-called laws of nature for four percussionists (2002). Under the Green Umbrella banner, this piece will be heard on October 7, also at Disney Hall, along with Michael Gordon’s Timber.

But the season opener, which concludes with Gustavo Dudamel conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 (1902), begins with the U.S. premiere of man made, Lang’s new percussion concerto which will feature Sō Percussion. The exploratory and courageous ensemble is known for building instruments out of found objects. Among the snapping, clanking, and clattering instruments in the 25-minute work are twigs, wine bottles, and trash cans. Lang, who created this piece specifically for Sō Percussion, finds common ground with the orchestra’s “normal” instruments by, in his words, “setting up a kind of ecology between the soloists and the orchestra, using the orchestral percussionists as ‘translators.'”

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The world premiere of man made in 2013 was also played by Sō Percussion but with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican in London. Critic Paul Kilbey called the four virtuosic percussionists astonishing, engrossing, and hypnotic. “The orchestral players were background figures for most of this, but their material was audibly derived from the percussionists’, and the quizzical, never-quite-stable stab chords they played formed an intriguing backdrop to it all. As so often with Lang, this was an uncannily insightful piece (here, alongside the musical element, he was clearly exploring some thoughts about technology) and I could easily have listened to twice as much of it. I guess it won’t be an easy piece to tour, with all its many props, but it would be worth the effort.”

SŌ PERCUSSION. Photo by Janette Beckman.

While a percussion concerto of this magnitude must be seen live, public radio station Classical KUSC (91.5 FM) will broadcast the Oct. 2 concert live from Walt Disney Concert Hall at 8 PT (11 ET). The broadcast will be hosted by Gail Eichenthal and Brian Lauritzen, and will also feature artist and musician interviews during intermission. As for Mahler’s Fifth—a huge musical canvas that includes an achingly beautiful love song to his wife, Alma—Dudamel led the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela during the already legendary Mahler Project in 2012; this is his first time conducting it with the LA Phil.

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So, what’s with the name “Sō?” It came from Jason Treuting’s sister, Jenise, who worked in Japan as an English-Japanese translator. According to Jenise, “The word “Sō” comes from 奏, the second character in the compound Japanese word 演奏 (ensou): to perform music. By itself, sō means ‘to play an instrument.’ But it can also mean ‘to be successful,’ ‘to determine a direction and move forward,’ and ‘to present to the gods or ruler.’ Scholars have suggested that the latter comes from the character’s etymology, which included the element ‘to offer with both hands.’”

DAVID LANG's 'the so-called laws of nature' sheet music - courtesy of Adam SliwinskiJoining Sō Percussion for the first LA Phil Green Umbrella series performance of the 2014/15 season on Oct.7 are LA Phil New Music Group members Principal Timpanist Joseph Pereira and percussionist James Babor. Together, they will tackle Michael Gordon’s physically and technically demanding Timber. For the piece, 2×4 hardwood boards called simantras are cut to a slightly different length (providing a slightly different pitch), then mounted on a stand and amplified. The musicians stand in a circle facing each other, using mallets and fingertips to play the formidably complex patterns set forth on the page. Below is a clip of Gordon discussing his hour-long tour de force that sets a new bar for the endurance, execution, and energy of percussion performance.

First on the program is a revisit for Sō Percussion of Lang’s the so-called laws of nature . The title is derived from a quote of Wittgenstein: “At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanation of natural phenomena.” Most of the instruments are homemade or found, and while certain specific guidelines are given, some amount of variation is allowed and expected. Instruments include woodblocks, homemade metal pipes, tom-toms, bass drums, brake drums, tuned flowerpots, teacups, woodblocks, little bells, and guiro. Below is a clip of the Sō Percussion Group performing a section from so-called laws at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) in 2011.

photos courtesy of Los Angeles Philharmonic

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
David LANG: man made (U.S. Premiere performed by Sō Percussion)
Gustav MAHLER: Symphony No. 5
Thursday, October 2 at 8 pm
Friday, October 3 at 11 am
Saturday, October 4 at 8 pm
Sunday, October 5 at 2 pm

LA Phil New Music Group
Green Umbrella series: Percussion Marvels
David LANG: the so-called laws of nature
Michael GORDON: Timber
Sō Percussion
Joseph Pereira, timpani
James Babor, percussion
Tuesday October 7 at 8 pm

Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave.
for tickets, call 323.850.2000 or visit www.LAPhil.com

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