Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Never bang a drum, slowly or otherwise — a CSO percussionist takes center stage.

Cynthia Yeh

     Picture a symphony orchestra: the conductor, front and center, standing before the strings; violins to the left, violas and cellos to the right. Beyond that, woodwinds and brass. Then way in the back, off to the left, out of sight and pretty much out of mind, except for the occasional cymbal crash, are two or three percussionists hidden behind their elaborate kits — snare and bass drums, tubular bells, and timpani, aka kettle drums.
     Not tonight.
     Tonight — May 30 — is the world premiere of Jessie Montgomery’s “Procession,” written especially for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s principal percussionist, Cynthia Yeh.
     A drum set, plus vibraphone and glockenspiel — sort of a baby vibraphone — are to the immediate left of the conductor, where a guest violinist might stand.
     Sure, it felt odd.
     “I’m not up there often,” said Yeh, who had the unique position of being both inspiration and featured performer of the piece. “I’m never under his nose. I’m always surprised by how hot it is there.”
     Classical music does not serve up many drum concertos — major musical compositions featuring a specific instrument, usually piano or violin.
     So how do you get a concerto written for yourself? If you’re Cynthia Yeh, it’s simple.
     “I asked her if she would,” Yeh said. “She shockingly said ‘yes.’”
     Maybe not so shocking, considering Yeh’s reputation.
     “She is incredibly devoted to the passion of the music,” said Manfred Honeck, music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor at the premiere. “She has a technique which is unbelievable. Really accurate. She knows everything, actually.”
     Montgomery has been composer-in-residence for three years at the CSO, and this piece caps off her tenure here.
     “I am forever grateful to Cynthia Yeh, who urged me to compose this work and who has been an extremely patient and thoughtful collaborator as I navigated my first large work for percussion,” Montgomery wrote in the program.

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  1. We saw this piece premiered by Cynthia Yeh, Jessie Montgomery playing violin,, at a Third Coast Percussion concert at DePaul early in May. A very interesting piece. If you like percussion, you should check out Third Coast. While they travel world-wide , you can usually catch them at the Harris Theatre or at the DePaul Holschnieder Performance Center (beautiful theater! You should take a look if you have not seen it).

  2. Since she was once a xylophonist, the world's largest manufacturer of them & marimbas was the JC Deagan Company at the corner of Berteau & Ravenswood on the North Side. Rahm Emanuel's house is across the alley from it. I believe it moved to Elkhart Indiana in the mid -80s, where so many other musical instrument makers are located.

    1. Wasn't it a big brick building, with a clock tower? I lived at Berteau and Paulina from '86 to '88, and I would take the Ravenswood train downtown, from the Irving Park "L" stop. I walked by that building twice a day.

      Never knew they made percussion instruments. Thanks for the heads-up. Chicago was, and still is, such an amazing place. Once upon a time, it was: "Chicago makes...and the world takes..."

    2. I lived on Paulina at Sunnyside for a couple years in the 70s. One day, I left the door unlocked and walked over to the National on Wilson and Clark. When I got back, there were fire engines in the street and smoke coming out of the building next door to mine. Of course the firemen unnecessarily broke my door and then put a hole in my ceiling as well, while I stood there watching. It was a nice neighborhood (trumpeter and Cub Carmen Fanzone lived down the street), but I'm glad I moved away, as I met my wife and daughter to be at my next home on Kenmore.


    3. Fireman often do what seems like needless damage, but these are all safety protocols that amongst other things chimney any smoke out of the building so they don't get overcome by smoke inhalation

      They'll break the doors even when the owner is present and has a key because they don't want a locked door to cause them to get trapped

      The safety of the firefighters is more important than the property damage

    4. Oh, I quite agree with you...theoretically, but after more than 50 years of pondering, I still ask the question, "Why the hell didn't they turn the knob?"

  3. Always interesting, unusual and educational. Thank you, sir! Plus, I love the word “glockenspiel”.

  4. "Then bang the drum slowly, play the fife lowly
    Play the dead march as you carry me along"

    From the chorus of "Streets of Laredo"...and from which also came the title of the 1956 baseball novel about a dying ballplayer, by Mark Harris. His book--"Bang the Drum Slowly"--also became a live 1956 TV production...with Paul Newman...and later was made into a movie. That 1973 film adaptation starred a then little-known Robert De Niro.

    1. And Liam Clancy released a memorable rendition of "Green Fields of France" that can be heard here:


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