Sunday 29 May 2022

Adventurous and exciting: Sō Percussion and Caroline Shaw at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival

So Percussion, Caroline Shaw (Photo Shervin Lainez)
So Percussion, Caroline Shaw (Photo Shervin Lainez)
Angelica Negron: Gone, Go Back, Bryce Dessner: Music for Wood and Strings Caroline Shaw: Let the Soil Play its Simple Part; Sō Percussion, Caroline Shaw; St Andrew’s Hall, Norfolk & Norwich Festival.
Reviewed, 18 May 2022 by Tony Cooper

Sō Percussion, a percussion-based music group from Brooklyn, New York, deployed a deep kit of rhythmic tools for a trio of new and exciting works teaming up with fellow American, Pulitzer Prize composer, Caroline Shaw

Deploying a vast kit of rhythmic tools and joined in the second half by Caroline Shaw, Sō Percussion - a virtuoso four-man percussion chamber group from Brooklyn, New York - presented a trio of new works by Angelica Negron, Bryce Dessner and Caroline Shaw to an adventurous and appreciative but, nonetheless, curious audience at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival on 18 May 2022.

A winner all the way, it seems, North Carolina-born composer/violinist/singer, Caroline Shaw, was the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013 for her a-cappella piece Partita for 8 Voices and was duly awarded the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition in 2017 for Narrow Sea. A calming and tranquil-sounding piece, it drew inspiration from shifting tides and centuries-old hymns underlying the pain and unease of feeling adrift in the universe.
Ms Shaw - who has written over 100 works over the past decade for the likes of Anne Sofie von Otter, Yo Yo Ma, Renée Fleming, Dawn Upshaw and the LA Phil - teamed up with Sō Percussion to give the UK première of her new work, Let the Soil Play its Simple Part, a cycle of ten songs ranging from the elegiac and wistful to downright theatrical.

One of the highlights of the cycle was a haunting cover version of Abba’s Lay All Your Love with solo voice accompanied by simple notes on marimba, stripped so bare that it sounded like cathedral plainchant. And the title-song itself was a beautiful duet between Ms Shaw’s crystal-clear voice and the shimmering tones of the Caribbean steel drum. Extraordinary music that brought a warm response from the Norwich audience.

Also included in Sō Percussion’s invigorating and uplifting programme was a piece written by Cincinnati-born composer/guitarist, Bryce Dessner, entitled Music for Wood and Strings. Now based in Paris, Dessner is a member of the rock band The National which has in its line-up Dessner’s twin brother, Aaron.

And as one would expect from a rock musician, Dessner's piece harboured bags of explosive energy, riffs and bass lines straight out of the rock world as all four players strummed, plucked, bowed and struck their ‘chord sticks’ which were essentially sawn-off guitar necks.

Producing sounds like a hammered dulcimer or a Hungarian cymbalom and with the addition of other percussion instruments, these created a mesmerising musical experience unfolding over 35 minutes and alternating between funky rock rhythms and ethereal contemplation. Ebbing and flowing, the piece finally drew to a meditative and uneasy close with all four players tunelessly strumming their fingers over the strings of their instruments.

The same concert also saw the UK première of Gone and Go Back by Puerto Rican-born composer and multi-instrumentalist, Angélica Negron. Without doubt, these pieces proved the most experimental of the evening but there was a real sense of theatre as all four players solemnly took up positions behind one another to open Negron’s music with striking unison bell tolls on xylophones. This soon morphed into a complex rhythm announced on wood blocks as a haunting vocal loop played behind, vibrating bells were dipped into coloured water to bend the resonating tones and mini robots were added to the vast array of percussion instruments.

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