The work begins with a ceremonial call-to-action in which the high priest shakes a giant rattle, which is then followed by a highly erotic ceremonial dance. The densely-scored work gives the percussion section a chance to show off its collective virtuosity, particularly in a visceral sense.
“This piece takes us out of our usual ensemble setting within the orchestra,” said Stuart Langsam, a Philharmonic percussionist who also teaches at Oklahoma State University. “In an orchestral piece, we might play one or two accessory instruments like the triangle or tambourine. With this piece, each player is asked to play four of five different instruments. It's a different type of genre that shows the audience that we get to do a lot of fun stuff.”
Because multiple rhythmic lines are played simultaneously in “Ogoun Badagris,” the performers spend a good deal of their rehearsal time trying to clarify the music's dense textures. And since the work is performed without a conductor, the players often rely on visual cues to keep the work's driving rhythms solid.
“Hearing each other is a little tricky so we have to stay a little more visually connected,” said David Steffens, the orchestra's principal percussionist and an Oklahoma City University faculty member.
“There are a couple of thorny moments and we have to be sure to land together. It requires a different kind of concentration. You're focusing on the unison of the ensemble for the entirety of the work.”
While the orchestra's percussion section has frequently performed “Ogoun Badagris” on its annual youth concerts, this marks its first appearance on a classics concert. But it ties in nicely with the program's theme, “A Globetrotter's Guide to the Orchestra.”
“I think the audience will really get a kick out of hearing it,” Langsam said. “Percussion is obviously musically and sonically very satisfying, but it is also visual: sticks moving and bodies moving.
“The music is rhythmically driving and intense so there's an excitement and flair to the playing. Music can be soft and expressive but also raucous, loud and bombastic. I think music lovers are going to have a real ball listening to this.”