Third Coast Percussion: Perspectives (CD review)

Music by Elfman, Glass, Jlin, and Flutronix. Third Coast Percussion. Cedille Records CDR 90000 210.

By John J. Puccio

To say there isn’t an abundance of purely classical percussion recordings around might be an understatement. Perhaps it seems odd, given that every classical orchestra has a percussion section, that the percussion should not have as much day in the sun as the violin and the piano have enjoyed. Maybe it’s because percussive instruments don’t make as persuasively plush, mellifluous sounds as violins and pianos. I mean, you can’t really wax too very lyrical on a drum. Anyway, such paucity of percussive recordings makes this new album from Third Coast Percussion all the more appealing. The players are quite good, and the four selections they chose for the program are all world-premiere recordings.

First, a word about the group. From their Web site we learn that Third Coast Percussion was founded in 2005 and “has performed hundreds of concerts across the country, presents an annual concert season at home in Chicago, teaches musicians of all ages and experience levels, and has commissioned dozens of new works by composers including Glenn Kotche, Philip Glass, Devonté Hynes, Chris Cerrone, Augusta Read Thomas, Donnacha Dennehy, and David T. Little.

“The mission of Third Coast Percussion is to inspire and educate through the creation of exciting and unexpected musical experiences. Third Coast Percussion's vision is a worldwide audience that embraces creativity, curiosity, and community through music. The ensemble has forged a unique path in the musical landscape with virtuosic, energetic performances that celebrate the extraordinary depth and breadth of musical possibilities in the world of percussion. The ensemble has been praised for “commandingly elegant” (New York Times) performances, the ‘rare power’ (Washington Post) of their recordings, and ‘an inspirational sense of fun and curiosity’ (Minnesota Star-Tribune). The four members of Third Coast are also accomplished teachers, and currently serve as ensemble-in-residence at Denison University.”

The ensemble includes David Skidmore, an Ensemble Member and Executive Director of the group. As a chamber musician, David has performed at Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Center Festival, Kimmel Center, and many other leading venues. He was a member of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble from 2007-2011 and Ensemble ACJW from 2008-2010. He has performed and collaborated with many of the world's finest musicians including conductors Pierre Boulez, Lorin Maazel, David Robertson, and Michael Tilson Thomas, composers Steve Reich, Steve Mackey, Matthias Pintscher, and Peter Eötvos, and chamber ensembles Eighth Blackbird and Ensemble Signal. David has performed as a soloist in Europe, Asia, and the United States. He has also performed as a member of the Lucerne Festival Academy, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the Pacific Music Festival, and the National Repertory Orchestra.

Robert Dillon is an Ensemble Member and Development Director of the group. He has performed with the Chicago, Boston, and San Diego Symphony Orchestras, and served as principal percussionist in the Madison Symphony Orchestra from 2007-2008. He previously served as chair of percussion studies at Merit School of Music and a percussion instructor at Loyola University Chicago.

Peter Martin is an Ensemble Member and Finance Director of the group. As a chamber musician, he has performed with many leading new music ensembles including the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Eighth Blackbird, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, the Atlantic Chamber Ensemble, and many more. In addition to his work with Third Coast Percussion, Peter is a member of the award-winning contemporary music group Ensemble Dal Niente.

The fourth member of the group, Sean Connors, is an Ensemble Member and their Technical Director. He has performed with Amphion Percussion, the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, Eighth Blackbird, the International Contemporary Ensemble, Signal, and Metropolis Ensemble, and he was the percussionist for two summers with the prestigious Aspen Music Festival Contemporary Ensemble. As an educator, Sean served for two years as assistant professor of percussion at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point.

Yes, they are good. Very, very good.

So, the first selection on the program is the Percussion Quartet by American composer Danny Elfman (b. 1953). Although Elfman is primarily known these days as a film composer (Batman, Darkman, Spider-Man, Men in Black, and the like), he has also written a number of concert and stage pieces. But he’s done only one percussion work so far, and it’s surprisingly traditional, written in four fairly symphonic movements. It’s also among the more accessible works on the disc, which is probably why the producers chose to put it first. The fusion of instruments in the music is such that one quickly forgets there are only four people involved and that they are playing solely in the percussion medium. I quipped earlier that one can hardly wax lyrical on a drum, but in the second, slow movement, that’s exactly what the players do. The whole piece is really quite beautiful and expertly handled.

The next piece is by the well-known American composer and pianist Philip Glass (b. 1937). It’s the briefest selection on the album at about nine minutes, and it is Metamorphosis No. 1. He based it on his original solo piano version, and Third Coast Percusssion perform it on marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, and melodica. Frankly, it sounds to me much richer and mellower on the percussion instruments than it does on the piano. I found it far more attractive in its new trappings than ever before, more varied, more mellifluous, more rhythmically dynamic, simply more appealing. And I can’t imagine it being done any better than by Third Coast Percussion.

Next on the agenda is the longest work, Perspective, in seven movements by American electronic musician Jlin (Jerrilyn Patton, b. 1987). It is remarkably varied in its rhythms and nuances and provides endless opportunities for the percussive instruments to express themselves. It’s also perhaps closer to what most of us would expect to hear from a percussion group. It has a certain exotic quality to it, some of it sounding like music of the South Seas or Asian Pacific, while other parts demonstrate a quiet dissonance. All of it, however, is rather Romantic in nature, with nothing discordant enough to jar our senses. Remarkably, too, this is the first recording I can remember that produced musical notes a good three feet or more outside the main speakers. It was as though I had additional speakers on the side walls, given the surround sound I heard. It was a little eerie, actually, but quite pleasant.

The final item is called Rubix, a collaboration by Third Coast Percussion and Flutronix (Nathalie Joachim and Allison Loggins-Hull, both of whom are reaching out from their classical roots). The music is elegant and colorful, and the precision of the players contributes to an overall sense of tasteful grace. It makes a fitting conclusion to an album of perfectly harmonious charm. What I thought might be a cacophonous disc of tumultuous noise turned out to be a calming and relaxing respite, I loved it.

Producers Elain Martone, Colin Campbell, and Danny Elfman and engineers Bill Maylone, Dan Nichols, and Jonathan Lackey recorded the music at Chicago Recording Company in October 2020. As we would expect from Cedille, who always produce good-sounding discs, this one, with its small ensemble of percussion instruments, sounds terrific. It’s done fairly close up, so each instrument is clearly delineated, and with the addition of some mild room resonance, the result is both realistic and satisfying.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Founder and Contributor

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Karl W. Nehring, Editor and Contributor

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to both its equipment and recordings review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me — point out recordings that they think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises Marantz CD 6007 and Onkyo CD 7030 CD players, NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I occasionally do some listening through pair of Sennheiser 560S headphones. I miss the excellent ELS Studio sound system in our 2016 Acura RDX (now my wife's daily driver) on which I had ripped more than a hundred favorite CDs to the hard drive, so now when driving my 2022 Accord EX-L Hybrid I stream music from my phone through its adequate but not outstanding factory system. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has tolerably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom II Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can’t imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.

Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Webmaster and Contributor

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Most recently I’ve moved to my “ultimate system” consisting of a BlueSound Node streamer, an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a CD transport, Legacy Wavelet DAC/preamp/crossover, Tandberg 2016A and Legacy PowerBloc2 amps, and Legacy Signature SE speakers (biamped), all connected with decently made, no-frills cables. With the arrival of CD and higher resolution streaming, that is now the source for most of my listening.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio
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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa