Oregon Symphony premier of Andy Akiho Percussion Concerto

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Oregon Symphony premier of Andy Akiho Percussion Concerto

Wow!  Andy Akiho's Percussion Concerto is absolutely wonderful.  With dramatic twists and turns and a remarkable range of emotions, I was alternately moved to bob to the beat and swoon with longing.  Hiro and I were both teary-eyed and speechless at the end.  It was one of the most moving musical experiences we've had.

Oregon Symphony played two pieces sandwiching the Percussion Concerto; Charles Ives' Three Places in New England, and Stravinsky's Firebird.  I liked the Ives piece, but the pre-show description set my expectations a bit high.  "Bold and quirky, it's remarkable this piece was written 100 years ago."  From my perspective as a lover of contemporary music -- percussion, experimental electronica, hip-hop -- the music was only bold by 1915 standards.  For me, the classical-music-newb, what kind of introduction would have best prepared me?  Perhaps a sampling of classical music from Ives' time, showing how Ives differed so dramatically... or a prelude of the third movement's beautiful main melody.  The conductor described it as "one of the most beautiful melodies ever written" and I was disappointed in the performance when it happened and so quickly moved on.  "Wait!  Was that the most beautiful melody?  Come back!"

I thought I knew Firebird, but like so many classic pop songs where I only know the chorus, I didn't recognize anything except the final melodies.  That having been said, I was intrigued the whole time.  The balance and blending of all the instruments is incredible.  After the performance I mentioned to one of the Symphony's percussionists how well the snare roll blended in the dramatic crescendos and he told me that Stravinsky uses trills on the trumpets at that moment to help blur the distinction between the percussion and melodic instruments.  Amazing.  Apparently, everyone knows that Stravinsky was a master of arrangement, but this was my first time knowing what that means.

So Firebird was great, but it was the Percussion Concerto that shined.  For me, the Percussion Concerto is the most exciting, rich, inspiring orchestral work I've seen.  My musical world changed.  I felt like I did after watching "The Wire", when my TV-world changed.  After five seasons of "The Wire", with David Simon's directing and those amazing actors, everything else felt outdated.  And so with Andy's piece too, now, everything else feels "classical"... as if the bar of "contemporary" has moved.  The Percussion Concerto feels like music for me, for a percussionist who listens (with Andy) to Eminem and Billie Eilish before the symphony.

I'm pleased to say the Akiho Percussion Concerto piece will be performed again.  Next year, it will be performed in the Czech Republic.  And I have no doubt it will continue after that.  I'm rooting for some great orchestra to record the piece... that's a track I'd pay hundreds of dollars for.  Please, please!

In the charming pre-show talks, Andy mentioned choosing the title "Percussion Concerto" because he initially didn't want to impose a particular meaning on it.  Now that Portland is his second-home, and the piece was written in cafes and private homes across the city -- he's considering adding a subtitle.  I'll make a suggestion, based on a charming moment after the premier.  As we were crossing the street to go to a party at the apartment of the Oregon Symphony CEO, Andy turned to us in a burst of excitement.  He had heard that one of the barristas from Coava Cafe, where he wrote some of the music, might have come to the show.  He beamed and bounced.  It felt like it was a kind of closing the circle for him.  He wrote music powered by the coffee and the good vibes at that cafe and was elated he could give the music back to that barrista. 

I suggest, "Percussion Concerto: Finding Coava".


Notes for self

- When you worry about your music being over-complex, remember how pleasing the Percussion Concerto's rapid changes are.  And the "orgasm denial" that happens repeatedly before the piece's conclusion.

- Remember the fragility of the balance between instruments.  Remember the near-perfect blend of percussion and other instruments in Firebird, and the way the drum pod at the front of the stage in the Percussion Concerto wasn't quite as integrated.  The kick sound doubled with percussion at the back of the ensemble worked... perhaps that could be applied to snare too?  Perhaps a subtle bit of artificial reverb on the snare through the PA?

- I love marimba but I want more bass at the low end.  Colin described the higher notes as having "less power", but for me in the audience, it felt the opposite.

- harp + marimba is magical!

- The up-turned metal bowl is a delightful sound.