CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Joseph Schwantner's Percussion Concerto was composed in 1993. In the world of orchestra music, with audiences that can still tremble at the names of Bartok, Stravinsky and Schoenberg, and conductors that tremble at most things American, that makes it "new music." But it definitely is not new.
So what is it?
A masterpiece that is muscling its way into the standard repertoire, aided by soloists that have conquered its challenges and play it with authority.
Lisa Pegher was just such a soloist in her brilliant performance of the piece with the West Virginia Symphony Friday night at the Clay Center.
The piece began with a series of volleys from the soloist at the back of the orchestra on a kit of bass drum, tom-toms, timbales and bongos braced by Schwantner's characteristic pyramiding, ringing harmonies and angular melodies. It quickly turned reflective with Pegher moving to marimba for a cascading melody with pulsating accents that gathered in the heterophonic support of the rest of the percussion section, piano and harp.
Those ideas alternated, each developing in intensity, before ending with a massive final volley of Pegher's drums with the orchestra.
The heart of the concerto is the 10-minute-long slow movement, an elegy to Schwantner's friend, the composer Stephen Albert, who died in a car crash in 1992.
Pegher moved to the front of the stage for this movement to play metal instruments, including vibraphone, crotales (little bell plates) and Almenglocken (tuned cowbells) along with triangles, cymbals and gong (lowered into a tub of water at times to bend its pitch), plus bass drum and tenor drum.
The opening recalls Charleston-born George Crumb's music, with a succession of two hollow, hammered chords on vibraphone at the dissonant interval of a tritone.
Pegher has an uncanny feel for the vibraphone's sound. While mostly used as a jazz instrument with soft mallets that give it a mellow, sweet tone, Pegher found a stark tone that made the instrument sound dark and tragic.
The middle section brought a long, descending melody with a counterpoint of one other line. It could not be simpler in idea or more inventive in substance. It started in the violins, with some players offstage, and gradually added the rest of the strings growing in volume until the brass joined to make a shattering climax. Pegher's part was just bass drum, playing dirge-like rhythms, but again she showed a splendid ear for tone, drawing whispers to thunder from the seemingly one-dimensional instrument.