Defying Gravity Percussion Ensemble

Conservatorium Auditorium

reviewed by Neville Cohn


For those coming new to an ensemble such as Defying Gravity, it would probably be fair to say that a prime expectation would be an encounter with music offered at significant decibel levels. And while this would certainly be true of the opening work – Prime by Askell Masson – much of what followed carressed rather than assaulted the ear.defgrav

Prime is a solo for snare drum. Abrupt, peremptory, loud outbursts figure prominently in a short work which Daniel Hall presented with authoritative confidence.

After this assault on the ears, one turned, as if to a refuge, to the gentle murmurings which Callum Moncrieff coaxed from the marimba. His account of Prelude to the Dawning Day by Takayoshi Yoshioka was balm to the ears, its gentle pianissimo shadings calling Debussy’s Gardens in the Rain to mind. It was a fine foil to Dreams of Foreign Shores by the same composer, music marked by emphatically stated rhythms.


More often than not, Defying Gravity offers ensemble pieces. This program – aptly called Defying Gravity Flies Solo – was a departure from that practice; four of the eight works on offer were solos with another calling for two marimba players. It was a compilation that gave regular followers of Defying Gravity an opportunity to hear what its members are capable of in a solo role. There’s a lot to be said for this: percussion groups usually devote all or most of their time to ensemble pieces so it’s rare to encounter ensemble members in a solo role – which is a shame as, on the basis of this presentation, there’s a world of often fascinating music that remains largely under wraps.

This was glowingly apparent in Catherine Betts’ account of Mark Glenworth’s Blues for Gilbert. Written in homage to the composer’s teacher, it requires a soloist of refined musicianship to give point and meaning to its gentle ideas. This young musician was clearly up to the challenge as she clothed the work’s arabesques in a nimbus of glowing tone.

In a program almost entirely free of mishap, we also heard Joshua Webster in Emmanuel Sejourne’s Nancy, which came across as a little essay in wistfulness, the more satisfying for the care lavished on phrasing of the most musical kind.

It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast between these discreet musings and the explosion of sound that is Manfred Menke’s Dinnertime.

Rosie Halsmith, Kaylie Melville, Holly Norman and Ella Mack were perfectly cast as the exceedingly bad mannered diners, who rush on stage noisily to seat themselves at table as they cook up a rowdy storm by impatiently and vey rudely banging their wooden spoons on the table as they wait for a dinner that, like Godot, never arrives – and on the evidence of their boorish table manners (which included bumping the underside of the table with their knees) it’s just as well. One shudders to think of what might have happened if the meal failed to win their approval. The quartet rushed off stage as abruptly as they had made their entry, leaving behind more than a few broken spoons under and around the table and an audience that burst into vociferous applause.

Tango Suite was a disappointment, though. This reworking for two marimbas and bongos of Piazzolla’s music while beyond reproach notationally, revealed little of its interior mood.

Holly Norman played Matthias Schmitt’s Ghanaia on the marimba to most effective accompaniments by a quartet playing, inter alia, jingle bells, a cow bell and a jemba drum.

All these works were played from memory with the exception of the opening snare drum solo.

Thirteen players were mustered for the finale – Nigel Westlake’s Penguin Circus, an engagingly extrovert affair with, inter alia, parping hooters and simulations of steam train whistles adding to the fun.

Copyright 2006 Neville Cohn

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