Review: Third Coast Percussion and Jessie Montgomery Give a Moving Performance

Third Coast Percussion gave another wonderful performance at DePaul’s Gannon Auditorium on Friday night. The program included several works that have appeared on recent TCP releases. Highlights, however, were provided by composer/violinist Jessie Montgomery, the Mead Composer-In-Residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Montgomery ended the concert with a performance of Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Violin and Percussion Orchestra. To pull that off, TCP members Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore were joined by a fifth percussionist, She-e Wu, who is the Director of the Percussion Program at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music.

Jessie Montgomery. Photo by Marc Perlish.

TCP performances are fun to watch. Upon entering the hall, the audience is confronted by a stage full of noise-making devices. Center stage on Friday were the keyboard instruments vibraphone, marimba, and glockenspiel arranged to face each other. Nearby were drums, bass drums, pipes, whistles, mallets, violin bows, and many other objects. Stage right had single drums next to steel bowls. Stage left had other drums, gourds, ceramic bowls, and various other accouterments.

An enjoyable aspect of a TCP concert is their constant shifting between different devices within the same piece. Performing this music requires movement, and not just standing in place. Choreography is a key consideration to TCP performances, and they meticulously work it out in advance. Flexibility is enabled by the fact that percussionists are trained to play every object that makes sounds. Each member of TCP can play every instrument.

They also approach their performances as a team, and they share the limelight and work. Given the small (but growing) repertoire for percussion quartet, they often arrange chamber music written for other instruments. They all contribute to this, sometimes individually, sometimes as a group.

Peter Martin introduced the first work, Etude No. 1 by pianist/composer Tigran Hamasyan, which he also arranged from solo piano to percussion quartet. As such, most the action took place center stage on the keyboards: marimba, vibraphone, and glockenspiel. An enervating waltz, it was a lovely way to start the concert.

Third Coast Percussion: Sean Connors, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and David Skidmore. Photo by Marc Perlish.

Robert Dillon introduced the next work, three pieces from a longer work by Phillip Glass, Aguas de Amazonia, which TCP arranged for percussion quartet. The last of the three pieces they performed, “Madeira River” opened their 2018 CD Paddle to the Sea. They also performed “Purus River” and “Negro River.”

Staying on the keyboards, they added several other instruments, including melodica, desk bells, bass drum, bongos, electronica, and Swiss cowbells. Glass’ main style of rapidly repeating notes to form slowly moving melodies works really well with a percussion ensemble playing extremely precisely. Everything sounded well together, and it all gelled.

The second half of the concert was reserved for Jessie Montgomery, both as a composer and as a violinist. First, Sean Connors introduced the Suite from In Color, a work he transcribed from Montgomery’s original scoring for tuba and string quartet to percussion quartet. The three pieces “Red,” “The Poet,” and “Purple” centered on the marimba and vibraphone. Montgomery incorporated very interesting harmonies and dissonances in quick succession.

With Montgomery’s first piece written for percussion quartet, Study No. 1, the action shifted to stage right. Each player shifted back and forth between drums and metal bowls. They created deep moaning sounds by blowing through surgical tubes into the drums, which expanded them. At times the bowls would resonate to amazing overtone combinations.

David Skidmore introduced the final work in the concert, and the players shifted to stage left for Montgomery’s performance of Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Violin with Percussion Orchestra, a work in three movements. It offered a nice aural integration between melodies on the violin and percussive sounds on drums, gourds, and bowls, which were also played by the fifth percussionist, She-e Wu.

The middle movement was especially effective. A slow Largo cantabile, Montgomery played long, unbroken quarter notes, backed up by lots of careful beats on percussion. It ended with ever quieting sounds that vanished into the ether.

Harrison wrote several cadenzas that Montgomery nailed. At times, the work had the feel of a manufacturing assembly line, reminding me of industrial music from the early 1980s by SPK, Throbbing Gristle, and Einstürzende Neubauten.

Third Coast Percussion and Jessie Montgomery will be touring together next season. They will be bringing Study No. 1 and Harrison’s concerto to Northwestern’s Winter Chamber Music Festival, on January 11, 2025, at 7:30 pm. For more information, click here.

TCP will next be premiering several new compositions at their annual Currents concert at Constellation on the first day of summer, June 21, 2024, 8:30 pm. For more information, click here.

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Louis Harris

A lover of music his whole life, Louis Harris has written extensively from the early days of punk and alternative rock. More recently he has focused on classical music, especially chamber ensembles. He has reviewed concerts, festivals, and recordings and has interviewed composers and performers. He has paid special attention to Chicago’s rich and robust contemporary art music scene. He occasionally writes poetry and has a published novel to his credit, 32 Variations on a Theme by Basil II in the Key of Washington, DC. He now lives on the north side of Chicago, which he considers to be the greatest city in the country, if not the world. Member of the Music Critics Association of North America.