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SEEN AND HEARD INTERNATIONAL CONCERT REVIEW
Les Percussions de Strasbourg
Jean-Paul Bernard, Artistic Director
At times during this electrifying reading of Gèrard Grisey's Le noir de l'étoile by Les Percussions de Strasbourg, I simply closed my eyes and succumbed to the meteoric volleys of sound whirling around Alice Tully Hall. Grisey's hour-long opus is unique, deploying six percussionists, some sound technicians and a mysterious introductory voice, plus sounds created by translating frequencies received from two pulsars, thousands of light years away. (I honestly can't think of another piece of music that even remotely resembles this.)
For this performance (part of the new Tully Scope Festival), two musicians were placed onstage, right and left; two on either side on raised platforms at the midpoint of the hall; and two on platforms at the back, one in each corner. The audience, in the center, was surrounded. The opening narration is the taped voice of an astrophysicist, Jean-Pierre Luminet, whose eerily calm reflections on the nature of pulsars might make him well-suited to read the spoken introduction in Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle. As Luminet finished, a low hum permeated the semi-darkness, and the musicians quietly took their places.
The calm was abruptly shattered by blistering volleys of drumbeats, racing around the room. Explosive accents combined with woodpecker-like rapping on pieces of wood. The percussive sounds ricocheted across the space, creating the illusion of being submerged in an increasingly thickening electrical storm. At the climax, it felt as if every groan in the universe had been lured inside, trapped to bombard the ear drums. (Perhaps surprisingly, the physical noise level was not unbearable.) Along the back wall of the stage, the subtle LED lighting under the hall's wooden veneer was also pressed into service, with glowing red masses making slow horizontal shifts. At the end, one of the onstage musicians slowly walked forward to the center of the stage, and stuck a small metal disc (somewhere between a gong and a cymbal), sending it spinning, dispersing its whirring sound for a few seconds until it stopped-bringing the ritual to an end.
One friend wrote the next day, "I'm ready to hear it again-right now." Les Percussions gave the premiere in 1991 (Grisey completed it in 1989-1990), and these six players know this score inside and out, evidenced by the subtle nonverbal cues crisscrossing the hall. That knowledge, coupled with the sheer caliber of their musicianship, made a thrillingly visceral experience.