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John Shaw’s beat-by-beat preview of TFO’s Percussion concert

By John Shaw, TFO Principal Percussionist

The percussion family often plays a supporting role in an orchestra. The endless variety of drums and other things you can strike, shake or scrape can be a rhythmic, driving force – but they’re also used as color. We punctuate moments with brilliance, evoke exotic locales and create the sounds that suggest any number of settings, from a military encampment to a church bell tower.

This weekend, The Florida Orchestra percussion section takes center stage to show what our arsenal of instruments is capable of all on our own (with the help of a few friends). Joining me on stage will be my longtime section mate, Dave Coash, who’s been with The Florida Orchestra for more than 40 years. We’ll also be joined by Brian Jordan (principal percussionist with the Naples Philharmonic) and Craig Benson, who’s served as our first-call extra percussionist for 37 years.

Some of the pieces you’ll hear on the concert (not in concert order):

Labyrinth of Light: A beautiful, ethereal combination of harp and marimba, this might be the most surprising piece on the concert. My wife, Principal Harpist Anna Kate Mackle, and I commissioned the work from North Carolina composer Nathan Daughtrey in 2018, and this will be the first time we’ve performed it for Florida Orchestra audiences. The synergy between these instruments is rarely heard, and one reason we’ve embarked on a project of commissioning new works for harp and percussion.

Allison Loggins-Hull
Allison Loggins-Hull

Hammers: You don’t often hear flute with a percussion ensemble, but it’s a great combination. We’re thrilled to have Principal Flute Clay Ellerbroek join us for this piece by Allison Loggins-Hull (flutist/composer), which she described as being inspired by construction noise and other industrial type sounds that she’d hear walking around her home in New York City. The piece conveys this idea with a combination of jazzy flute and grooving drums.

Trio in a Rudimental Style: The concert opens with this piece by Joseph Tompkins that pays homage to the fife and drum origins of military drumming, with a nod to Steve Gadd of Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover fame. We lead into this piece playing on rope-tensioned field drums, such as you’d see in Colonial Williamsburg.

Ritual Music: As the title suggests, the quartet sounds like a powerful accompaniment to some sort of ritual. Written by David Skidmore, the piece was premiered by Third Coast Percussion in 2005 in collaboration with Chicago dance company Raizel Performances. It’s definitely very “drummy” and driving, but with a quieter marimba trio in the middle that provides an interesting contrast.

Xylophonia and Back Talk: Both of these were written during the “Golden Age of the Xylophone” in the 1920s and ‘30s, when the instrument was a regular on radio shows. Both pieces are scored for solo xylophone with accompaniment from a trio of marimbas. Joe Green’s Xylophonia has Dave Coash on xylophone, while I play the solo part on Harry Breuer’s Back Talk.

Ku-Ka-Ilimoku: The grand finale will be a showstopper: a percussion quartet by Christopher Rouse. Ku is manifested in this piece as the Hawaiian god of war, and the result is a savage, propulsive war dance. The instrumentation is mostly non-pitched drums and percussion, and features some unusual instruments such as boobams – long, tubular-shaped drums that can be tuned to specific pitches – along with a large assortment of wood blocks and log drums. It’s a very exciting closing piece, with a South Pacific feel.

This concert is unlike anything TFO has ever performed before. It will be a treat both visually and sonically – all with only six musicians. I think you’ll be captivated by the variety of both instruments and musical styles. Please, join us!

Masterworks: Soundwaves
TFO Percussion
Sat, Mar 20, 5 pm
Sun, Mar 21, 5 pm
Both socially distanced concerts at the Mahaffey Theater; tickets start at $23.