It was an unusual sight at a concert by the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra.
On Wednesday, the front of the stage at David Geffen Hall was crammed with a motley assortment of percussion instruments, many concocted from junk. There were tables of corked wine bottles filled with varying levels of water; four gleaming trash cans; and, most intriguingly, some small piles of twigs.
Though the popular Mostly Mozart festival has won deserved praise for introducing innovations into its overall programming, concerts by its resident orchestra have mostly hewed to staples by Mozart and company. But this performance featured the premiere of David Lang’s new arrangement of “man made,” his single-movement concerto for percussion and orchestra, written in 2013 for the four brilliant players of So Percussion. The other works, by Mozart and Lully, were chosen to complement Mr. Lang’s inventive 22-minute piece.
Before the performance, Mr. Lang spoke about his aim for this work. In Mozart’s time, percussion instruments had little role in the standard orchestra, with the exception of the timpani, or kettle drums. Typically, when a composer wanted to evoke some exotic realm, novel percussion instruments were introduced. Indeed, the program had begun with Louis Langrée’s conducting a lively account of Mozart’s Overture to “The Abduction From the Seraglio,” in which a bass drum, a triangle and cymbals evoke a Turkish pasha’s palace, where the story is set.
During the 1930s and ’40s, as Mr. Lang explained, American composers like Henry Cowell, John Cage and Lou Harrison began presenting all-percussion programs, often using found objects as instruments. The members of So Percussion embrace that practice. Mr. Lang has written a concerto in which unusual percussion instruments try to mingle with the orchestra, though the traditional instruments are initially baffled by the strange intruders. The orchestra’s percussionists (boosted to four here) act as translators, Mr. Lang said, sort of go-betweens.
At the start, the members of So Percussion, who bring vivid theatricality to their performances, sat facing the audience, looking stoic. Then they began, at first in sync, to snap the twigs and drop them on the stage floor, creating gentle, rhythmic ripples. (The sounds were slightly amplified.) In time, the percussionists in the orchestra responded with scattered bursts on various instruments. Finally, the whole orchestra joined in, playing sputtering rhythms, tart harmonies and thematic fragments that coalesced into melodic lines.
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