After Two-Day Delay, Copeland, D’Drum Debut Sophisticated Concerto

A week of disappointment and frustration brought on by weather-forced cancellations arrived at a very happy ending Saturday night when Stewart Copeland’s Gamelan D’Drum finally made its at Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center.

Copeland, formerly the drummer with the ‘70s and ‘80s rock band The Police, has been very seriously involved as a composer of film music and its close cousins, classical concert music and opera, since the middle 1980s. Saturday’s premiere, conducted by music direct Jaap van Zweden, revealed a composer who has skillfully drawn together numerous strands of musical thought for a work that is not only intellectually successful but which can inspire sincere and immediate emotional response from an audience.

The premiere had been scheduled for Thursday night, with repeats on Friday and Saturday. When the show finally took the stage on Saturday night, concert-goers were greeted by a colorful and unusual percussion instruments, ranging from brilliantly gilded, sophisticated items to objects obviously directly removed from nature. These all belonged to the Dallas-based five-member world-music percussion ensemble D’Drum (John Bryant, Ed Smith, Ron Snider, Douglas Howard, and Jamal Mohamed). Two members of the ensemble also perform with  the Dallas Symphony.

When viewed within the tradition of classical music, Gamelan D’Drum is closely related to the baroque concerto grosso tradition, in which a small ensemble functions as the “soloist” against the larger orchestral ensemble. In this case, the huge number of instruments and the dramatic entrances and motion on the stage of the members of the ensemble added a visual and spatial element, drawing on some of the innovations of Crumb, Corigliano, and others  in that area. At the same time, there’s a natural contrast and interplay among the percussion instruments and between the percussion ensemble and the orchestra behind. Copeland frequently relied heavily on repetition and the amazing variety of timbres available from these instruments, but he also produced a convincing—indeed, hypnotic—sense of motion and momentum. He also fell back, wisely, on a traditional fast-slow-fast arrangement of three movements. The slow movement was the most immediately impressive, with a touching lyricism and short solos for violin and cello that could have come from Dvorak or Tchaikovsky. If some of the effects were obvious, many were subtle and highly successful.

It’s truly a shame that the premiere was limited to one performance; in light of the extended and obviously sincere audience response (three long curtain calls). This is a work one could easily imagine in the other great concert halls of the world, with all of the major orchestras. The extreme specialization and expertise required by the solo ensemble may limit it to performances involving D’Drum in particular, which, on the other hand, can turn out to be an advantage, if handled well on behalf of the ensemble. Although many of the effects were related to live performance, one can also imagine that the work could be recorded very effectively. The Dallas Symphony should certainly consider presenting follow-up live performances as soon as possible.

The limited rehearsal time no doubt contributed to the lackluster performance of Mendelssohn’s Scotch Symphony after intermission. As a longtime fan and advocate of Mendelssohn’s music, I’ll let that performance pass without further comment, and chalk it up to unfortunate circumstance.