Stylish percussion and brooding Shostakovich at Orchestra Hall


Classical Music Critic

Avner Dorman, an Israeli-born composer now living in the United States, was in Chicago last week in anticipation of the American premiere of his percussion concerto entitled “Eternal Rhythm.” He studied in both Israel and the U.S., securing his doctorate from the Juilliard School where he studied composition with John Corigliano.

The American premiere was also only the second set of performances of this 2018 work, the first being in Hamburg, Germany. He has written two other percussion concertos: “Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!” (2006) and “Frozen in Time” (2007). This time it was the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by guest conductor James Gaffigan who brought Dorman’s work to life. Principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh, a member of the CSO since 2007, was the soloist.

The work shares a name with a live jazz album by Don Cherry and this would appear to be no accident. Dorman uses sharp, strong rhythmic effects that share elements found in jazz as well as other popular forms of music such as progressive rock and house music. (And as a pleasing coincidence, Cherry’s 1968 album was recorded in Berlin just as Dorman’s “Eternal Rhythm” was first heard in Germany.)

The piece opens with a strong strike on the tamtam, a brash doorbell sound announcing the doorway to the music. Yeh then offered a pretty melody on the crotales, shimmering and gleaming. Devotees of gamelan music will immediately realize the composer shares affection for these sounds (he regularly participates in making gamelan music in Pennsylvania, where he lives). It is a pleasing way to bring twinkling gentleness to the music before the percussion soloist moves on to music-box-like sound from the glockenspiel.

The main instruments that Dorman uses for the soloist are vibraphone and marimba. Yeh’s great talents meant that the music proceeded with ease even as tempos heated up and the passages became rapid and complex. It is a credit to Yeh that she lets the music speak without showboating or employing silly affectation. She moved about the front of the Orchestra Hall stage from Gaffigan’s right to his left with cat-like calm and elegance, never making it seem as if the travels between instruments was some kind of race or madcap game of musical chairs.

Dorman often gives the orchestra a muscular sound, at one point with brass and low strings issuing burping-like notes to punctuate the solo lines. Gaffigan’s only gaffe was to occasionally let the orchestra overpower the solo percussion leaving the listener straining to hear the more delicate shimmering of the vibraphone or the rich tones of the marimba.

There is an extended section for timpani, tom-tom, and “tin cans (or cow bell).” For the last, Yeh employed a small set of kitchen pans and one metal bowl. Dorman told me that this set of instruments are to be chosen by the soloist and that they should be “found instruments,” which appears to be a corollary of the “found objects” sometimes seen in other forms of art.

The 4th movement, marked Adagio and which the composer explains is the heart of the concerto, contains a haunting melody for which Dorman offers the soloist a choice of singing or playing vibraphone. The text employed is one that the composer told me he has admired since high school, an 11th-century Hebrew poem which opens with the line, “Does the tear know whose cheek it runs down…?” The original soloist was also an accomplished singer, says Dorman, and that gave him the inspiration to employ voice. But since he knew not all percussionists would want to sing, he included the vibraphone solo as an option, which is what Yeh choose to perform. In his program notes, Dorman explains that, “At this point in the piece, we realize that the rhythm of life and the rhythm of the universe are the same…”

It was a vibrant 25-minute performance, with masterful work by Yeh and admirable sound from the orchestra.

After the intermission the only other music on the program was Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8. It is a wide-ranging piece with brooding reflection and anguished outbursts.

It opened with chunky, blaring sounds from the low strings, almost ponderous yet full of portent. The wind choir was marvelous in creating an unsettled, disturbing mood while the strings offered ominous support. This built to a striking and exciting controlled cacophony.

The almost demented military march of the second movement was powerful and disturbing.

The final three movements proceed along without interruption and Gaffigan knew how to draw out the insistence from the score. There was an engaging trumpet fanfare, and the entire orchestra at times seemed like a crazed machine, delivering unrelenting gloom.

The final movement aptly drew out Shostakovich’s few glimmering points of light and as the work came to its conclusion, Gaffigan kept his arms up as the sound disappeared, making the silence at the end of the symphony all the more striking.

There was again a good number of empty seats, so CSO fans should consider last-minute ticket purchases, as seats are likely to be available. Coming up at Orchestra Hall: on Oct. 10, 11, and 12 Kirill Karabits conducts Prokofiev, Mendelssohn, and Lutoslawski with Sunwook Kim the soloist for Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No. 1. On Oct. 15 Kent Nagano conducts the Montreal Symphony Orchestra with works by Bartok and Prokofiev along with pianist Denis Matsuev serving as the soloist for Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

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