The rhythm of life: Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra

By William Dart

Dame Evelyn Glennie promises high entertainment value from her performance with the APO. Photo / Jim Callaghan
Dame Evelyn Glennie promises high entertainment value from her performance with the APO. Photo / Jim Callaghan

She was on our television screens last weekend, at the head of 1000 drummers adding spectacle and decibels to the Industrial Revolution sequence of the Olympic Games opening ceremony. Next Thursday Dame Evelyn Glennie is in town, playing Christopher Rouse's Der gerettete Alberich with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

Talking to her, before she took part in that Olympic feat, our conversation roves at first; I learn she admires Canadian pianist Glenn Gould for "taking many, many chances and that's the essence of live performance".

Closer to her own home, the Scottish percussionist explains the primal links between traditional dancing, drumming and playing the bagpipes, all of which she has done.

"You only realise the sense of the dancer's footwork in relation to the little grace notes of the snare drum and the phrasing of the pipes."

There are many connections and contrasts in Thursday's Der gerettete Alberich. "It might have parts which are purely rhythmic but others are much more lyrical," she says. "Percussion can deliver both, just as much as any other instrument. But, because of the physicality of our performance, many people imagine the main ingredient is rhythm."

Though a visiting violinist might bring along his or her treasured Stradivarius, a percussionist has a stable of instruments, most of which are provided by the host orchestra.

"The moment I arrive in Auckland I'll be checking the instruments," Glennie laughs. "These days promoters are much more aware of quality as opposed to saying 'a drum is a drum and get on with it'.

"At last they're thinking about percussion the way that they take into account the quality of a piano."

She pulls back from naming a favourite instrument ("It's whatever I'm playing at the time") but seems to have a soft spot for the drum kit.

"It's certainly the most unusual because you see it in pop groups, jazz and folk music. There are so many great and innovative players that it's almost like a small orchestra."

Glennie is easily drawn on the great drummers of the jazz world. She admires Louis Bellson, Gene Krupa and especially Buddy Rich. "He was from another planet. He brought together musicianship and technique in a way that was utterly seamless. It was just like a bit of velvet when he played."

Most importantly, there may be something classical musicians can learn from their colleagues who work on the lighter side. "These people are so aware they are entertainers and we've got to remember that we are too," she asserts. "It's all one and the same thing."

A high entertainment quota can be expected with Christopher Rouse's virtuoso concerto, telling the story of the warped, malevolent dwarf who is one of the few characters to survive the tumult of Wagner's Ring.

"I wasn't expecting a Marimba Concerto," Glennie laughs, when I ask about her original commissioning of the work. "I knew he wanted to create a piece using drums and such as opposed to mallet music."

His first proposal hooked her from the start when he asked, "How about basing the piece on Wagner's Ring and how do you like the idea of being a Scottish Alberich?"

Glennie enjoys working with today's composers and has commissioned works from the best. One is John Psathas and she has had an association with the New Zealander dating back to his 1991 Matre's Dance.

"I'm looking forward to doing his Piano and Percussion Concerto with Joanna MacGregor in Germany in a few years' time.

"He's a very important composer in the world of percussion."

Where and when: Auckland Town Hall, Thursday at 8pm

- NZ Herald

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