Orchestral composers regularly concern themselves with melodic, harmonic and rhythmic materials, as well as the sonorities that are produced when various instruments are combined. But they also like to take the occasional opportunity to feature an instrument in a solo capacity.
On a recent concert titled “Russian Enchantment,” for example, the Oklahoma City Philharmonic performed Igor Stravinsky's “Petrouchka,” a ballet that featured prominent solos for clarinet, bassoon, flute, trumpet, tuba, piano and xylophone.
Yet while orchestral solos abound in the orchestral repertoire, audiences rarely have the opportunity to hear works that showcase groups of similar instruments. The Oklahoma City Philharmonic will remedy that situation with an all-orchestral season finale.
The orchestral brass will perform a new work by Australian composer Paul Terracini titled “Gegensatze” (“Contrasts”). The string ensemble will be spotlighted in Samuel Barber's “Adagio for Strings” and the woodwinds will be featured in Tchaikovsky's “Capriccio Italien.” Rounding out the program are Wagner's overture to “The Flying Dutchman and Strauss' suite from “Der Rosenkavalier.” Music director Joel Levine will conduct.
Perhaps the most unusual work in this concert, and the one that qualifies as the most visually exciting, is Christopher Rouse's “Ogoun Badagris.” Inspired by Haitian drumming patterns, the 1976 work features five percussionists who play more than two dozen instruments.
“This piece was pretty different from anything else that was out there at the time it was written,” said Lance Drege, the orchestra's timpanist and a faculty member at the University of Oklahoma. “It's still played quite a bit today because it's a fun piece to play.”
In addition to the percussion section's usual suspects — snare drums, bass drums, timpani, suspended cymbals, woodblocks, gongs and sleigh bells — Rouse scored his piece for cabasas (which create a metallic rattling sound), timbales (single-headed Cuban drums), conga drums (tall drums common in Latin music) and ratchets (instruments that create a clattery sound).
He also wrote for the quica (a Brazilian friction drum capable of a large pitch range), a lion's roar (a drum whose familiar sound is made by pulling a cord through the head) and log drums (hollow, wooden drums that produce an eerie, primordial sound when struck).
Rouse, a member of the composition faculty at The Juilliard School, said in a program note about “Ogoun Badagris” that the work explores various aspects of voodoo ritual. The title character is one of the most terrible and violent of the voodoo deities and can be appeased only by human blood sacrifice.
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.”