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Percussionist Pegher rocks the Clay

By David Williams
Courtesy photo
Pittsburgh native Lisa Pegher is a young virtuoso who is carving out a new path for percussion as a solo instrument. She played with the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra Friday night and will rejoin the symphony for two shows Saturday. Symphony Magazine considers her one of the top six performers of her generation.

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.

The Crumb-like metallic sounds returned to end the movement.

The finale is a wild dance in fleet asymmetrical meters (lots of five with a bit of two, eight and 10 tossed in). Pegher started on a shaker, improvising against a backdrop of plucked strings, sliding low brass and bassoon chords and flurries of percussion.

She made her way back to the marimba, where she essayed a spiky theme using four mallets. Her tone was markedly pungent, rich but tightly focused. The members of the percussion section, who were nearly as busy as she was, played with verve.

A return of the first movement's music led to Pegher's lengthy, dazzling cadenza worthy of a rock drummer.

An amped-up version of the end of the first movement, now with Pegher improvising at top speed, ended the piece.

Conductor Grant Cooper handled the intricacies of the score's shifting meters and myriad cues with precision, and the orchestra matched Pegher in brilliance.

The audience responded with a lengthy ovation, with several curtain calls for Pegher and Schwantner, who attended.

Cooper opened the concert with Brahms' "Variations on a Theme of Haydn." He conducted with a light touch, letting each variation unfold simply while he held the increasingly complicated rhythms in balance. The orchestra's winds, horns and trumpets sounded glowing, while the strings played adroitly.

Respighi's "Roman Festivals" closed the program. It is brash, banal and brilliant in equal measure, when it isn't pilfering whole pages from Stravinsky (and even that is good). In short, it is a hoot that gives the players a workout.

It was the last brilliant part of a brilliant evening.

Pegher will appear with the orchestra at the Clay Center Saturday morning at 11, playing just the finale of the concerto for the Family Discovery Series. The full concert repeats Saturday night at 8 at the Clay Center.


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