Martin Grubinger is undoubtedly the world’s most popular multi-percussionist. The Salzburg-born musician is an artist the likes of which are rare in the percussion profession. Grubinger delights his audiences with gymnastic musical tours-de-force that go way beyond any soloist’s usual limits while consummately nailing many new compositions tailored specifically for him.
On April 28, he appeared at Müpa Budapest with the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg (OPL), to give the Hungarian premiere of the Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason’s Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra. The score, subtitled “Inferno,” calls for seven conga drums, several mallet instruments, bells, tympani, triangles, hammers – even a wine bottle, pieces of wood, key rings, ceramic bowls — whatever resonates or makes a ding-dong.
Written just four months ago, Bjarnason’s one-of-a-kind concerto largely relegates the orchestra to the role of sturdy canvas for the master painter-percussionist, although there were plenty of magical moments of orchestral brilliance as well. The second movement was a show-stopper because it added two tympanists recruited from the orchestra to join Grubinger on the front of the stage. While a lone clarinet played in the background, the three softly rolled their various mallets on the skins and simultaneously turned the tuning rods so they could play melodies. This unusual and muscular artistry was fascinating to watch.
The ‘inferno’ aspect reached bonfire status via Grubinger’s non-stop, super-powered bounce around the stage, experimenting with every instrument’s possibility for expression from near-silence to a deafening roar, taking the orchestra (conducted by Gustavo Gimeno) along for a wild ride. The third movement offered more delicate textures of total intimacy from both soloist and orchestra. His encore was even more intimate: he talked to the audience as if they were his best friends, and then demonstrated on a single marching drum how drumming “doubles” is taught. “If you can do this well,” he exclaimed, “then I invite you to join me in Salzburg for our next concert!” [He’s not kidding]
Varga’s threnody to the pandemic
Re lavish orchestral brilliance, the program opened with the world premiere of Judit Varga’s “stars buried deep,” which, she says, was inspired by the pandemic and its victims. It begins with the silence of the abyss using pianissimo harmonics and subterranean grumbles. With waves of chordal structures, she gradually built up a spectrum of atmospheric phenomena in which a few quarter-tone slides helped create a shimmering dissonance.
Throughout this intensely descriptive work, the moods continually shape-shifted, and as it came to a close, dense cluster chords in the strings slid downward toward their return to the abyss. Despite the sobering subject matter that inspired this piece, “stars buried deep” is a masterwork, an extremely radiant orchestral experience.
The pleasures of Orientalism
Gimeno led the massive OPL in a heavenly account of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Sheherazade;” this time though (I think I’ve heard this work 100 times), instead of the usual hackneyed and overly-dramatic versions, it was like a luxurious bath of sweet secrets, perfume, and a peek into a gemstone-studded harem. The concertmistress’ many solos had a touch of ingenue modesty, adding to the sensuous atmosphere throughout. Gimeno’s expert shaping of the whole evoked a mature rendition that gave this excellent orchestra its well-deserved moment in the spotlight.