John Adams world premiere and statement works by Alejandro Viñao and Garth Neustadter and Kjell van Sice occupy compelling programme for The Percussion Collective’s European debut tour (28 March – 5 April 2020)
Major landmarks in music history often involve the meeting of outstanding compositions and remarkable players. The Percussion Collective, founded by the truly exceptional performer and pedagogue Robert van Sice, is set to add to the historical record when it makes its European debut at the Purcell Room in London on Saturday 28 March 2020. Its programme offers the world premiere of a new version of John Adams’s Hallelujah Junction, specially transcribed for six members of the Collective, together with the European premieres of a new score for percussion quartet and electronics by London-based composer Alejandro Viñao and Seaborne, a multimedia work created by Emmy Award-winning composer Garth Neustadter and videographer Kjell van Sice. The American ensemble’s tour itinerary also includes concerts at the Allerheiligen-Hofkirche in Munich (Wednesday 1 April), Vienna’s Musikverein (Saturday 4 April) and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw (Sunday 5 April).
The Percussion Collective reflects the creative vision of its Artistic Director. Robert van Sice, familiar to audiences in the UK and Europe for his solo appearances with, among others, the London Sinfonietta, Ensemble Contrechamps and L’Itineraire, launched the group at the end of 2017 in company with many of America’s finest young solo percussion artists. The Collective aspires to emulate the finest string quartets and cultivate the sophistication associated with the best in chamber music-making. Its distinctive approach stems from precise execution, sonic refinement and dynamic onstage communication, qualities associated with the Van Sice school of playing, and from its emphasis on commissioning music that stirs strong emotions and draws performers and listeners into rich expressive worlds.
“Nobody wants to sit for ninety minutes and be dazzled only by the virtuosity or the exotic sounds of percussion,” declares Robert van Sice. “We’ve come a long way since I gave the first solo marimba recital at the Concertgebouw’s Kleine Zaal thirty years ago. Thanks to the evolution of percussion over that time, we’ve come out of the back the bus to find ourselves in places I would not have predicted back then. The success of percussion has been gratifying and I hope I’ve had a small hand in that.” The exoticism around percussion, which existed in the early days of Van Sice’s career, has been replaced by a deepening understanding of the medium’s musical possibilities. “The next step will be to see a concert promoter book the one of the legendary string quartets one week and bring The Percussion Collective in the following week, not for their novelty value but because they’re brilliant chamber music players.”
Following a long and distinguished career in Europe, Robert van Sice returned to the United States in 1997. He has proved a major influence on percussion playing in the years since as Chair of Percussion Studies at Yale University School of Music and faculty member at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University and Curtis Institute of Music. “Although I created The Percussion Collective in 2017, we’ve been working together for twenty years,” he recalls. “I can fairly say that the group is just over a year old and twenty years old at the same time. Since setting up my studio in the United States two decades ago, so many of my students have gone on to major solo, chamber music and orchestral careers. But they always told me they missed the Yale Percussion Group and wanted to have something like it in their professional lives. We knew we couldn’t form a permanent group, so decided to put together an all-star team of players to work on projects. I choose them almost like a basketball coach would pick the ideal players for each game.
The Percussion Collective’s European tour team features a range of musicians from their mid-20s to their mid-30s, chosen by Van Sice from the best among his former students. “We’ve already spent hundreds of hours rehearsing and playing together in the Yale Percussion Group,” he notes. “It’s like watching my teaching life flash before my eyes!” Long experience also stands behind the Collective’s approach to commissioning new music, a careful process that involves working with composers who understand percussion and are eager to explore the musical potential of percussion instruments.
“I’ve admired John Adams’s Hallelujah Junction for many years,” observes Robert van Sice. “We were delighted when he gave us permission to transcribe the piece for percussion. Alejandro Viñao and I have been friends and worked together for many years. He has written a truly thrilling piece for the Collective. We gave its world premiere in New York in May and were delighted by it. His ambition now as a composer is for everyone in the audience to get up and start dancing! You can see people moving in their seats during the work’s first movement. It’s so alive and fresh but done with the hand of a master composer.”
Seaborne, which occupies the concert’s first half, offers a timely meditation on the state of the world’s oceans and the damage done by mankind to delicate marine ecosystems. The percussionist persuaded his photographer son to turn filmmaker for the project. Kjell van Sice responded to Garth Neustadter’s score by filming for months in the waters around Hawaii and Mauritius before matching powerful images to the music.
“It’s probably the very best piece I’ve commissioned in decades of commissioning new music,” says Robert van Sice. “I’ve never known a percussion piece that makes audiences cry. The first movement is about the death of coral reefs, the second is about our connection to the ocean and the last movement, with its deep underwater footage and Arvo Pärt-like sounds, is otherworldly and so beautiful. Seaborne, a duet between composer and videographer, is about making people fall in love with the ocean. We’ve never had the privilege before of taking works of such quality to the public, pieces that touch people so deeply and take them beyond their expectations of what a percussion group can do. People want to hear pieces that reflect the nuance, touch, beauty of sound and colours of percussion, just as they expect the same from new music for a great woodwind quintet or string quartet. I believe this is our moment.”
Saturday 28 March 2020
Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, 7.45pm
Garth Neustadter, Kjell van Sice Seaborne, multimedia work (European premiere)
Alejandro Viñao Stress and Flow (European premiere)
John Adams Hallelujah Junction transcribed for six percussionists (world premiere)