Classical Hits

Percussionist Evelyn Glennie drums up enthusiasm for new music.

So many unusual, attention-getting elements clutter Evelyn Glennie's career that it's easy to overlook the most important fact: Glennie, who appears with the Tucson Symphony this week, is an intelligent, sensitive, technically brilliant musician who manages to remain wildly popular while championing contemporary classical music.

She has achieved this under the remarkable circumstances of being 1) a touring classical percussion soloist who is 2) female and 3) deaf.

First of all, percussionists just don't expect to embark on solo careers in classical music. Most of them get tucked into the back or along the side of an orchestra, emphasizing rhythmic passages with firm timpani strokes or adding color with any number of other beaten or shaken objects. Some gather in small percussion ensembles to play a specialized repertory for a specialized audience; only a very few of these groups, like New York's Bang on a Can collective or the Kroumata Percussion Ensemble, ever penetrate the consciousness of the wider classical audience. To make a living as a traveling soloist is unheard of; on the rare occasions an orchestra plays a percussion concerto, it pulls the soloist from its own ranks.

And yes, there have been percussion concertos since the time of Mozart, but few until the 20th century. How many composers wanted to write a concerto that would rarely find a soloist? How many solo-minded musicians wanted to take up percussion, which had such a limited repertory?

Not only has Glennie established herself as a soloist under these difficult circumstances, but she's done it in a male-oriented field. Just look at the Tucson Symphony, which overall is almost perfectly gender-balanced: Its percussionists are all men. Women aren't excluded; it's just that striking inanimate objects is still largely a guy thing.

And finally there's the condition that got Glennie so much media attention in the first place. She has been profoundly deaf since age 12, the year she began her percussion studies (no, that's not what damaged her hearing). Glennie can detect sounds in a certain way; she can, for example, understand speech as long as she can see the speaker's lips and there's no other noise in the room. In concert, she relies largely on a sense of the physical impact of sound waves; she performs shoeless, feeling the orchestra's vibrations through the stage.

That's what got her press early on, but it was musicianship that got her a Grammy in 1989 and led to her being named an Officer of the British Empire in 1993 at the age of 27. Music, not deafness, is what she wants to talk about when reporters call her on the phone (an assistant next to her repeats the questions, which Glennie then answers directly, in a voice whose pitch and cadence are like those of any other educated person raised in Aberdeen, Scotland).

The longer of the two works Glennie will play with the Tucson Symphony is Joseph Schwantner's 1994 Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra. The work was commissioned for a New York Philharmonic celebration featuring the orchestra's own Christopher Lamb, but Schwantner wrote the concerto more as a response to the early death of fellow composer Stephen Albert. Glennie's recording of the concerto garnered her second Grammy nomination.

Glennie says Schwantner uses percussion very effectively here, but not always in an up-front, in-your-face way. "We mustn't forget that because the piece was written for the principal percussionist of the New York Philharmonic, Joseph has very interestingly featured the percussionist as an orchestral player," she says. "The first movement features the soloist playing back with the whole percussion section, then the soloist moves to the front for the second movement, and later the big improvised cadenza happens when the soloist moves back to the back of the orchestra. So it's an interesting little journey back and forth, but I think he has managed to strike a good balance between something theatrical, something that's extremely visual, and something that has meat to it. It is immediately likable, and there are many different elements to it that people find intriguing."

Particularly so, she says, is the second movement. "That is where we detect why the piece was written, in memory of Stephen Albert," she says. "We feel the disbelief and the sheer heartbreak and disappointment and everything else you would experience in losing a very close friend. That comes through in the music, featuring the sustained sounds of the vibraphone, the tam tam dipped in water, the cymbals, the triangles and so on. Yet at the same time you have this incredible cushion of sound from the strings, very soft chords; it's almost offstage-like. This is coupled with the heartbeats of a bass drum that seems to pound louder and louder."

Also on the program is a snare drum concerto by Icelandic composer Askell Masson. Born in 1953, he's a decade younger than Schwantner.

"This happened to be an amazing find a few years ago when I was sifting through the cupboards of the Icelandic Music Information Centre," says Glennie. "One of the compositions I found in one of the drawers was this concerto, and I couldn't believe my eyes; I thought, 'How unusual!' It's 10 minutes long, exactly the right length for a piece for snare drum. It's amazingly effective, and to bring it off the player must be able to play the drum. That sounds like an obvious thing to say, but there's no stick twirling or special effects other than what you achieve through straightforward drumming. The idea is that the snare drum has this sort of rhythmic melody which is weaved throughout the orchestra, and you end up with this little gem of a piece that is quite dark in its nature."

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of these concertos is that they weren't written for Glennie. She has commissioned 120 pieces, by composers who are very well known and by composers who are not. And Glennie is confident that the best of these works will continue to be played after she retires.

"Definitely I'm seeing in the U.S. as well as in the U.K. that 99.9 percent of music institutions are offering percussion students quite in-depth solo programs, for which they all have an opportunity to perform solo recitals and concerti," she says. "And a lot of the competitions and scholarships have now opened to percussionists as well. That's very important, because to be a percussion player of any sort is hugely expensive because of all the tools and instruments and transportation and flight cases and so on. That doesn't compare with a hugely expensive violin, but it's an ongoing expense through the musician's career.

"So, yes, there will definitely be people to play this repertoire in the years to come, and the audience will become more familiar with some of this music and develop the listening skills they need to appreciate percussionists."

No doubt people will develop those skills primarily by listening to Evelyn Glennie.