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From steelpan to ‘West Side Story’: NSO’s tropical heat wave

Written By | May 30, 2015

WASHINGTON, May 29, 2015 — In a non-regular season, non-pops special concert Friday evening, Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) blew the lid off the Kennedy Center’s Concert Hall with a scorching-hot program of Latin American and Latin-influenced classical music.

Manuel López-Gómez.

Conductor Manuel López-Gómez conducting the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra, 2011. (From the conductor’s Facebook page)

Scheduled works included the world premiere performance of young South Carolina-born composer Andy Akiho’s new concerto for steelpan and orchestra as performed by Liam Teague. Guest conductor Manuel López-Gómez presided over what may have been this ensemble’s most hyperkinetic evening of the current season.

Also on the program were George Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture,” Alberto Ginastera’s energetic “Estancia” ballet suite, Antonio Estévez’ “Mediodía en el llano” and Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances from ‘West Side Story.’”

Maestro López-Gómez launched the Friday festivities with a punchy but occasionally heavy-handed performance of Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture.” Inspired by a wild 1931 week in pre-Castro Havana, Gershwin created his own musical version of his experience, happily loading it with traditional Latin-style percussion and shifting, syncopated rhythms.

The NSO’s performance crackled with energy and wit. At times, however, the brass and percussion nearly obliterated the strings, which were trying to carry the melodic line, creating a sense of imbalance.

Small quarrels aside, the Gershwin warmed up the audience for the world premiere of young composer Andy Akiho’s Hechinger Fund-commissioned “Beneath Lighted Coffers – Concerto for Steelpan and Orchestra in Five Movements.” Featured soloist in this new work was Liam Teague.

Liam Teague and NIU Band.

Liam Teague photographed in performance with his Northern Illinois University (NIU) Band. (Screen capture from YouTube video)

Researching Mr. Teague prior to this concert, we noted one writer’s description of the artist as “the Paganini of the Steelpan.” Critics get used a certain level of hyperbole in PR. But after hearing Mr. Teague in action Friday evening, it’s not clear the Paganini analogy even comes close to describing what this amazing musician can do.

For the uninitiated, the steelpan or steel drum is a round, concave metal instrument generally played with rubber-tipped sticks or mallets. Long a familiar musical backdrop for vacationers in the Caribbean, its slightly hollow, distinctively metallic notes conjures up images of warm, sandy beaches and potent, tropical-fruity adult beverages served in tall glasses with jauntily protruding paper parasols.

Modern steelpan.

Modern steelpan.

A relatively modern creation, the instrument seems to have originated on the tiny, two-island Caribbean Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, located just offshore of Venezuela. Sometime during the mid- to late 1930s, some likely-impoverished but enterprising citizen of the then-British colony figured out that by precisely re-shaping portions of discarded oil drums with a hammer, he could create a surprisingly versatile percussion instrument that sounded a little like a mellower and more resonant xylophone.

Liam Teague is a native of Trinidad and Tobago. Not surprisingly, he began to learn his craft there. Now he’s an acknowledged world master of the instrument, currently heading up the steelpan studies program as an associate professor at Northern Illinois University (NIU), where he also leads the incredibly accomplished student NIU Steelband.

An American concert hall is a long way from those sunny tropical beaches where steelpan music got its start. But during Friday’s NSO concert, one could hear for perhaps the first time what a steelpan sounds like in a concert situation when accompanied by a large, percussion-fortified symphony orchestra, all brought to you, courtesy of Andy Akiho’s new steelpan concerto.

Andy Akiho.

Composer Andy Akiho with steelpan in background. (Via Vimeo screen capture)

Born in 1979, Mr. Akiho is part of a rising generation of contemporary classical composers who’ve largely thrown out atonal dogma as part of their drive to lead classical music at least partially back into the mainstream.

A steelpan performer himself, Mr. Akiho’s concerto is loaded with percussive effects. His music also exhibits an occasional hat tip in the direction of minimalism. But his score also creates a rich and unaccustomed environment in which Mr. Teague can does work his unique brand magic on the steelpan, producing rhythms, sounds and rapid-fire passagework you’ll never, ever hear on that idyllic tropical beach.

Somewhat mysteriously titled “Beneath Lighted Coffers,” this new concerto is the composer’s reflection on his fascination with the Roman Pantheon, an ancient, architectural masterpiece dating from the height of the Roman Empire. The concerto’s five movements describe aspects of the Pantheon’s distinctive elements, including the odd fact that Baroque composer Arcangelo Corelli is actually buried within the edifice.

We found this new work to be extraordinarily ambitious, both compelling and fascinating though perhaps slightly too long and occasionally overstated. The battery of percussion and heavy brass was an occasional issue, washing over the steelpan output at times.

Yet this concerto is a big, brash statement, proclaiming its sound and its message to be something new and special, while still rooted in the bedrock of Western tradition, perhaps exemplified by the spirit of the Pantheon itself. Angular, occasionally jagged, the concerto traverses the heights and the depths of that ancient masterpiece, leading to an elegantly stated conclusion.

This work is still a concerto, though perhaps in the mode of Richard Strauss’ “Don Quixote,” or Berlioz’ “Harold in Italy.” Both were essentially tone poems that featured solo instruments in starring roles. The same might be said of this new work.

In it, the steelpan serves as narrator/commentator, articulating the views and impressions of an unnamed visitor to the building—likely the composer—who reflects on its meaning and majesty.

With regard to the music itself, the concerto’s nearly nonstop solo part is wickedly difficult, giving Mr. Teague an opportunity to showcase his instrument in ways that arguably no performer could hope to emulate.

Mr. Akiho’s concerto calls for the soloist to make use of a variety of sticks or mallets, including at one point even the kind of brush a jazz drummer might use with the snare drum. The outside edge of the steelpan is also employed to add purely percussive effects.

Mr. Teague negotiated all the concerto’s challenges accurately, expressively and with impressive musicianship, adjusting his instrument’s output to fit the rapidly changing moods of the concerto. Particularly notable was his ability to race through Mr. Akiho’s devilishly complicated passagework with almost unearthly speed and grace.

The audience gave Mr. Teague, Maestro López-Gómez and the NSO an enthusiastic ovation for a performance that was indeed superbly well done. The enthusiasm only increased when Mr. Akiho, present for the premiere of his work, joined the performers briefly on stage.

Mr. Teague acknowledged the audience’s appreciation by returning to the stage and firing up a steelpan version of “Night and Day,” a song penned by an earlier Trinidadian musician, the calypso songwriter and performer Aldwyn Roberts, eventually better known as “Lord Kitchener” or “Kitch.”

The concert’s second half got off to a rousing start with a performance of Alberto Ginastera’s orchestral suite, extracted from his score to the ballet “Estancia,” whose music dates from the early 1940s. This is flashy, colorful, highly rhythmic music that’s not entirely familiar today to many audiences, except for its pounding, pulsating, amazingly irresistible “Final Dance,” an explosion of musical fireworks that exceeds Ravel’s popular “Bolero” in its drive and passion as marvelously conveyed by the NSO.

Next up was the NSO’s first-ever performance of Antonio Estévez’ short 1942 tone poem, entitled “Mediodía en el llano” (‘Mid-day on the Plain”). Not well known in the U.S., Estévez (1916-1988) was a respected Venezuelan composer whose musical interests ranged from the avant-garde to impressionism.

“Mediodía” mostly lives within the latter tradition. The orchestra’s performance of this lovely interlude was tastefully restrained, making it an oasis of reflective calm in Friday’s otherwise highly animated program.

Friday’s program closed with a snappy, hip, excellent performance of the suite of Symphonic Dances from Leonard Bernstein’s greatest Broadway triumph, “West Side Story.”

This 1961 dance suite, extracted by the composer from key numbers in the musical, was orchestrated by Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal under his supervision.

The dances constitute a compact, executive summary of the musical’s action. Punchy, often menacing, the music is loaded with percussive effects symbolizing gang violence with a distinctive, New York-style Latin beat.

Yet this sometimes brutal dance music is suddenly interrupted the poignant strains of “Somewhere,” reminding us of this show’s Shakespearean tragic origin in “Romeo and Juliet.” After more musical tumult, this same sequence is quietly and reflectively reprised in the tragic finale to the play and the suite.

This is great American music with a Latin twist, and the NSO and Maestro López-Gómez took it all the way for yet another memorable performance in this unexpectedly memorable evening.

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)



The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is located at 2700 F St., NW Washington, DC 20566.


Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17