I admit that I thought it was absurd to see an American Sign Language translator take the stage at Friday’s opening Cabrillo Festival concert to translate the composers’ and conductor’s remarks. You’d think the sense of hearing would be a prerequisite for anyone wishing to attend the symphony — why go and stare at an unheard orchestra for two hours?
Boy, did I get schooled. The off-duty usher who sat in the empty seat next to me told me all about the evening’s featured soloist, Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie, who has been profoundly deaf since the age of 12. Understandably, Glennie has gotten tired of journalists misrepresenting or focusing solely on her hearing impairment; her “Hearing Essay” published on her website helps to clear up misunderstandings by explaining the nature of deafness. She points out that the ears are not the only part of the body that can experience sound vibrations — she can pick up low frequencies in her legs and feet, for instance, hence her trademark habit of performing barefoot.
But Glennie rightfully hopes that her artistry will be judged according to her skills as a musician, and not through the lens of her disability, which she considers something as superficial as hair color or gender. She ends her essay with the request to “Please enjoy the music and forget the rest,” so I will respect her wishes.
And all this aside, Glennie is a formidable percussionist whose playing balances minute technical precision with intense physicality. Brazilian-born composer Clarice Assad took full advantage of Glennie’s musical athleticism for her percussion concerto AD INFINITUM, performed Friday in its world premiere. It’s a kind of tone poem representing the stages of life, from womb to tomb and back again in a cycle of reincarnation.
The composer incorporated a great deal of theatricality into Glennie’s solo part, especially in the dramatic birth prelude. With the percussionist nowhere to be seen, the work opened with what sounded like a chorus of crickets, produced by some unseen source. To this, members of the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra added aquatic timbres that conjured slushing amniotic fluid: mouth pops, bowed tam-tam, and the ghostly sound of a waterphone (the weird instrument that creates those eerie howls you hear in horror flicks).
Finally, we discovered the source of the cricket chirps: Glennie entered slowly and ceremoniously from stage left, like a Noh actor, rotating a pair of strange bell or cymbal instruments. Given the subject of the piece, she looked appropriately “Earth Mother” with her floral-print shirt, bare feet, and flowing white hair. Once she reached her drum set, a gong set off the explosive “birth” — an intricate and aggressive solo that combined elements of rock and Japanese taiko. Later, in the childhood movement, there was a miniaturized version of the birth solo, this time performed to great comic effect on smaller instruments and objects (a squeaky toy among them), calling to mind a hyperactive toddler beating away on pots and pans.
Cabrillo Festival, San Francisco, California, USA
07 August 2017