Percussion in the spotlightby Karl Gehrke, Minnesota Public Radio
Percussionists could be called the unsung heroes of the symphony orchestra. They sit in the back, sometimes playing only a couple notes in a piece. Over the next three weeks they'll get a rare turn in the spotlight as part of the Minnesota Orchestra's Crash! Bang! Boom! percussion festival at Orchestra Hall.
St. Paul, Minn. — Most members of the Minnesota Orchestra know exactly which instruments they'll be playing every night.
That's not the case for the orchestra's principal percussionist Brian Mount, though. One week he's playing snare drum and cymbals, the next xylophone and tambourine. Another week, it might be bass drum and vibraphone.
"I can't imagine what it's like to come into work and play the same instrument every day," Mount said. "I guess it's very gratifying, but I just don't relate to that world at all."
The Minnesota Orchestra's percussion section is pulling out its full bag of tricks during this week's opening concerts of the percussion festival.
Mount and his colleagues are playing chimes, cow bell, marimba, snare drum, glockenspiel, castanets and a host of other instruments in Rodion Shchedrin's adaptation of Rossini's "Carmen" Suite.
The arrangement gives the percussionists a rare opportunity to play the melody.
Their usual role is to provide color and spice to a piece. They often sit in the back of the orchestra, listening intently and waiting for their moment to play a snare drum roll, or maybe a sharp ding on the triangle.
But whether they have a couple notes or a thousand, Minnesota Orchestra percussionist Jason Arkis says that audiences always notice the percussion section.
"I think sometimes we're noticed more frequently when we're just playing a couple of notes," he said. "People are kind of watching and waiting. They're thinking, 'When is that person going to get up and do something?' And when we do, it's usually fairly dramatic and significant. Whereas I don't know how often audience members take a second violinist aside and say, 'I noticed what you were doing.'"
Arkis says he and his fellow percussionists don't think in terms of how many notes they play, but how they make the most of those notes.
Minnesota Orchestra music director Osmo Vanska says percussionists are no different from other musicians in the orchestra. He says they face the same demands of playing at the highest musical and technical levels.
But Vanska believes percussionists need to be especially brave.
"Quite often they have to do loud things, and if they hesitate it's impossible," Vanska said. "You have to count correctly and then trust yourself and play. If you're crashing cymbals, for example, you can't hide."
Playing loudly, though, isn't the most difficult aspect of being a percussionist. Brian Mount says it's playing softly.
"It's easier for us to play loud," Mount explained. "On some of the sensitive stuff, you really have to have control of your nerves. If you're trying to do something delicate and your hand is shaking like you had two cups of coffee, it's going to sound very bad. That's one of the underappreciated elements of percussion playing, I think."
Another little-known aspect of playing percussion in a symphony orchestra is the importance of placing the wide array of instruments in the right place on stage.
As the Minnesota Orchestra's principal percussionist, Brain Mount diagrams where everything will be positioned, and who will play which instrument. If he didn't, the result would be chaos.
"I don't want us running around like chickens with our heads cut off," Mount said. "We'll bump into each other if we've got all of these fast moves. So I spend a significant amount of time trying to map out a piece, so that we'll look professional and not be running round."
University of Minnesota percussion professor Fernado Meza will perform with the orchestra during this week's concerts. He says percussionists have different stories of how they became orchestral musicians, but they share one thing in common.
"The underlying thread for everybody is that we all love sounds," Meza said. "We're a little bit crazy that way, I guess. We all really spend a lot of time just thinking about different sounds."
A colorful spectrum of sounds will fill Orchestra Hall over the next three weeks during the Minnesota Orchestra's Crash! Bang! Boom! Percussion Festival. The opening concerts are tonight and Friday.
Next week, the orchestra welcomes the Swedish percussion group Kroumata to Orchestra Hall. The festival concludes on June 5 and 6 with Scottish percussionist Colin Currie, performing James MacMillan's "Veni, Veni, Emmanuel."
- All Things Considered, 05/22/2008, 4:54 p.m.