Rhythm drives PSO concert featuring Copeland concerto

By Elizabeth Bloom
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
February 20, 2016

You don’t get to see a long chain of per­cus­sion in­stru­ments lin­ing the front of the Heinz Hall stage ev­ery day.

Then again, you don’t get to hear Stew­art Co­peland, the for­mer drum­mer of the rock band The Po­lice, per­form with the Pitts­burgh Sym­phony Orches­tra ev­ery day. In the post-Po­lice era, Mr. Co­peland has com­posed sym­phonic works, film scores (“Wall Street” and “Rum­ble Fish” among them) and mu­sic from other genres.

As one of the four com­poser-per­form­ers fea­tured in the cur­rent PSO sea­son, Mr. Co­peland joined the sym­phony and con­duc­tor Mar­celo Leh­ninger Fri­day night for the world pre­miere of “The Ty­rant’s Crush,” his con­certo for drum set and per­cus­sion. In ad­di­tion to Mr. Co­peland on drums, the three-move­ment work show­cased the ter­rific PSO per­cus­sion and tim­pani sec­tions. Per­cus­sion­ists Andy Ream-er, Chris Al­len and Jer­emy Bran­son joined Mr. Co­peland out front, and prin­ci­pal tim­pa­nist Ed Stephan played the tim­pani in their usual spot. The work fea­tured a large per­cus­sion setup of var­i­ous mal­let in­stru­ments, drums, and aux­il­iary per­cus­sion in­stru­ments, along with a large or­ches­tra.

“The Ty­rant’s Crush,” a pro­gram­matic piece, fol­lows the rise and fall of a dic­ta­tor­ship — a theme fa­mil­iar to the com­poser, who grew up in the Mid­dle East and whose father worked for the CIA. The plot did not ap­pear to be par­tic­u­larly lit­eral, and three epi­graphs in the score (and pro­gram notes) ab­stractly de­scribe the sce­nario of the work.

It was no sur­prise that rhythm was the main force driv­ing the piece — not only for the so­lo­ists, but also for the whole or­ches­tra — and de­spite the storyline, it had an op­ti­mis­tic, cin­e­matic qual­ity. The per­cus­sion­ists had to mi­grate among a wild dis­play of in­stru­ments, but they man­aged to ground the vi­sual spec­ta­cle with se­ri­ous skill. (Any­body who thinks playing the tri­an­gle is easy should hear the tri­an­gle trio in the open­ing move­ment.) Mr. Co­peland, who is ob­vi­ously a tre­men­dous drum­mer, re­mained locked into the groove, threw in his own riffs and, sit­ting to the side, did not draw any more at­ten­tion to him­self than the other so­lo­ists.

But per­haps that be­came the work’s short­com­ing. A con­certo ought to show­case the in­stru­ments, but with so many solo parts shar­ing the spot­light, the piece seemed to un­der­mine it­self, un­clear about where mu­si­cal at­ten­tion should be paid. And the mel­o­dies didn’t help fo­cus it. Despite some ap­peal­ing tex­tures and vir­tu­o­sic so­los, it was hard to fol­low the mu­si­cal storyline.

The sec­ond half cen­tered on Shos­tak­ov­ich’s Sym­phony No. 1 and Mr. Leh­ninger, the mu­sic di­rec­tor of the New West Sym­phony in Cal­i­for­nia. The con­cert marked the Bra­zil­ian-born con­duc­tor’s first ap­pear­ance with the PSO.

Shos­tak­ov­ich’s work is one of the most in­trepid first sym­pho­nies in the canon, with its au­da­cious so­los, uninhibited char­ac­ter and no-holds-barred treat­ment of themes. Mr. Leh­ninger em­braced the score’s te­na­cious­ness. The or­ches­tra re­sponded with equal verve, ev­i­denced by the bur­nished tone of the full or­ches­tra and vivid sec­tion play­ing. (Fol­low­ing the con­certo, the per­cus­sion­ists and tim­pa­nist re­turned for the sec­ond half and were daz­zling.)

On the mar­gin, Mr. Leh­ninger’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion and tem­pos could be cu­ri­ous. The un­yield­ing speed of the open­ing move­ment, for ex­am­ple, glossed over de­tails hid­den in the tran­si­tions among the themes. Other mo­ments, such as prin­ci­pal obo­ist Cyn­thia Koledo DeAlmeida’s un­usu­ally quiet solo in the third move­ment, showed how such in­ter­pre­tive choices could suc­ceed.

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