Unlike the closing work in the Oregon Symphony’s October 22-4 concerts, Richard Strauss’s 1898 tone poem Ein Heldenleben, Andrew Norman’s 2015 percussion concerto, Switch is not explicitly a hero’s journey. But, invoking videogames as it does, one can’t help but sense a quest theme for these concerts. After all, the great videogame protagonists were all on some sort of heroic quest or another. Mario and Luigi, Link and Zelda, Samus Aran, Lara Croft — to name only a few — go through most of the phases outlined by mythologist Joseph Campbell in his legendary Hero With a Thousand Faces. I suppose we could compare the start menu with the call to adventure. Norman’s concerto follows the same basic pattern, sending the percussionist on a journey across the stage through several distinct phases of challenges and obstacles.
Soloist Colin Currie, for whom the concerto was composed, described his experience playing the piece as feeling like the pinball in an arcade game, ricocheting around the stage between three different arrays of percussion instruments. In the composer’s words: “The soloist, dropped into this complex contraction of causes and effects like the unwitting protagonist of a videogame, must figure out the rules of this universe on the fly, all while trying to avoid the rewind-inducing missteps that prevent progress from one side of the stage to the other.”
The orchestra started alone, sounding the call to adventure, and after a few minutes the percussionist rushed in from stage left to play quick figures across the first, gigantic percussion array, delivering complex syncopated runs on a set of huge almglocken (tuned cowbells), congas and bongos, concert toms, temple blocks, and tin cans before climaxing on the snare drum and cymbals. Currie handled his entrance marvelously, dashing in breathlessly over waves of whistles and cheers. A jolly impish grin on his face, he hopped through the opening gestures with nimble flair, checking in furtively with his music and conductor Carlos Kalmar while scurrying from one section of the array to another.
Once the piece got rolling, the title’s meaning became clear. Certain gestures in the percussion parts — woodblock strokes and cymbal chokes for Currie, slapsticks and log drums for the orchestral percussionists stationed around the orchestra — switched on and off the different layers of music (what Norman calls “channels”) throughout the orchestra. The effect was quite striking, if I may be excused the pun. Screeching violins and howling trombones would start up a wailing cacophony quite out of nowhere, and then stop just as suddenly, exactly as if a switch were being thrown or a button being pressed.
This back-and-forth progressed towards a climax, at which point Currie was suddenly sent back to the beginning, tumbling back down to the far end of the percussion array to restart the opening gestures on the almglocken, congas, and tin cans. Each time he returned, he did a little better—and moved through the passages faster and faster. Every successful completion of the opening passages would bring him to new musical material. It was just like “dying” in a videogame and having to start all over, rushing through familiar early levels to get to the next area.
During the concerto’s middle movement, in a sort of analogue to the traditional cadenza, Currie moved out of the massive array altogether and went to a smaller station just behind Kalmar. There he played a simple collection of woodblocks together with a pedal bass drum (the kind you find in a standard drum kit).
This cadenza must be seen to be believed. All the other percussion layers were stripped away, leaving only the “switches” of the woodblocks. Each woodblock started and stopped a different bit of music in the orchestra, so that with one stroke Currie turned on the strings, playing a long, slow, expressive melody, while another stroke turned the strings off and turned on the brass, playing bombastic fanfares. Although the music is all written out (as far as I know), it looked exactly like a solo artist playing with a digital sampler, hitting buttons to run prerecorded samples against each other. At times it was decidedly unclear who was following whom.
After passing through all these levels, the hero percussionist finally transcended the first and second percussion arrays and installed himself in a cage-like chamber comprised of giant hanging tam-tams and a vibraphone. Finally, the hero broke free of even this confinement and ended on a set of tuned Thai nipple gongs, gently striking each in turn to produce ethereal washes of sound before ending on the one, final unstruck gong and departing victoriously stage right.
It made a beautiful kind of sense for music director Kalmar and the Oregon Symphony to showcase Switch between Christopher Rouse’s short 2015 composition Supplica and Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life). Rouse is generally better known for his bombastic, percussive music, and the meditative Supplica, which opened the concert, contrasts nicely with his customary image. It also contrasted nicely with the subsequent percussion concerto, perhaps as a passing of the baton — or mallet — from a maturing percussion composer to an emerging one. And with its intentionally mysterious theme of supplication, Rouse’s brief, intense work for orchestra also suggested something of the hero’s quest, both in the Wagnerian sense of Parsifal’s unasked question and in the sense of “supernatural aid” (Campbell’s third stage).
After intermission, the concert concluded with a classic from the last days of Romanticism. Critics of the time decried the “egomaniacal” nature of Richard Strauss’ supposedly autobiographical tone poem, but as a tale of the mythical hero’s journey, Ein Heldenleben transcends both its time and its author. Strauss included several references to his own works, and saw it as a universal story of artistic struggle. Strauss (with Mahler) was one of the first composers to carry Richard Wagner’s revolutionary sense of harmony into the future, linking the radical Zukunftsmusik mythos of late 19th century Romanticism to Arnold Schoenberg and the 20th century avant-garde … leading, eventually, to the dense and evocative musical vocabulary of contemporary composers like Rouse and Norman. If the future can have a tradition, this is surely it: the eternal quest for whatever is new, strange, complex… and heroic.