by Frank Kuznik
The Indonesian sounds that flooded Severance Hall on Friday night started offstage, with the five members of the percussion group DʼDrum banging on ceng-cengs (hand cymbals), reyongs (pot gongs) and a doumbek (hand-held drum) as they struck up an exotic rhythm in the wings that built that built in volume and intensity as they marched out to join the orchestra. That opened 40 minutes of a rare meeting of East and West, and got the Cleveland Orchestraʼs popular “Fridays@7” series off to a rousing start.
DʼDrum was in town for a performance of Gamelan DʼDrum, a piece written for the group by Stewart Copeland, the drummer and composer who has had a prolific post-Police career creating scores for films, ballet, opera and orchestra. Stewart was also in town for the performance, and in a brief talk beforehand, expressed his reaction at working with the Cleveland Orchestra this way: “Thank you, Lord!”
DʼDrum specializes in Balinese and Javanese percussion, which is why the stage was covered with dozens of Eastern drums, gongs, cymbals, metal bars, xylophones and marimbas, with a touch of Europe in the mix in the form of a cimbalom (a Hungarian hammer dulcimer) and the primitive sounds of a lesung, a hollowed-out log normally used to pound rice that the musicians “play” with heavy poles. Although some of the instruments were custom-made for the group to match the pitch of European classical instruments, most are so foreign to Western scales and tuning that Gamelan DʼDrum is less a fusion piece than a showcase for Indonesian percussion with orchestral accompaniment.
Structured as a concerto, it opens with a fast-paced movement in which the orchestra takes its cue from the percussionists, starting with a cacophony of sounds that broadens into melodic phrases, then returns to bustling bursts of strings and woodwinds, driven by rhythmic patterns from the drums and cimbalom-marimba duets. As they did throughout the entire evening, the ensemble moved to a different part of the stage for the second movement, which begins with what sounds like birds and running water before settling into simple melodies created on gongs, drums and xylophone, filled out by deep, melancholy strings and off-key horns. That was some of the most evocative music of the evening, at times like a trip upstream in a tropical jungle, at other moments calling to mind traditional Asian dances.
The final movement is a riot of sound and color, with the percussionists making their way through almost every instrument onstage — including a polyrhythmic pounding of the lesung — while the orchestra reels off ascending and descending lines in the horns and strings, and occasional jabs of Stravinsky sans atonal elements. Though the dizzying array of sounds never quite jelled into a cohesive whole, the rapid changes in tone and shading were captivating. And DʼDrum sounded even more impressive in an encore featuring just the five men setting a jazz-like rhythm with the drums, they layering in tasty accents on the gongs and cymbals.
Conductor James Feddeck showed great dexterity in handling what he called a “collision of the worlds,” balancing the orchestra and the percussionists nicely in Copelandʼs concerto, and opening the evening with a deft handling of two traditional classical works.
First up was four entrʼactres from Mendelssohnʼs A Midsummer Nightʼs Dream, including the famous “Wedding March.” Feddeck coaxed a peppy performance from the woodwinds in the opening “Scherzo,” kept the tempo upbeat through the “Intermezzo” and “Nocturne,” and put some punch in the “Wedding March,” including introductory horns that sounded like the theme music from the film Rocky. The music was perfectly competent but without much depth, more of a gloss than a fresh interpretation of familiar melodies.
Feddeck handled “Suite No. 2” from Ravelʼs Daphnis and Chloé with considerably more sophistication. After a lovely liquid opening with the flutes, he wove shimmering textures and vivid colors throughout the three movements, ending with a swirl of horns and sharp, well-defined percussion. If the piece lacked the mesmerizing quality it can take on in the best performances, it was nonetheless good enough to captivate Copeland, who admitted during his talk that it left him “sobbing.”
Overall, it was a delightful evening to be at Severance. The only sour note of the evening was the surprising number of empty seats in the audience. The program should have been right in Clevelandʼs wheelhouse — a crossover work by a rock drummer combined with two accessible and popular pieces from the classical canon. Orchestra managers deserve a lot of credit for packaging all that in an attractive format that included a lively afterparty in the lobby. And more customers at the next “Fridays@7” concert in December.