The medieval German city of Hamelin has been known for centuries by its iconic musician, the pied piper. From Wednesday’s (August 12) La Jolla SummerFest concert, a good case could be made that San Diego’s iconic musician is percussionist Steven Schick.
Distinguished Professor at UC San Diego, Music Director of the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus, and founder of the university’s red fish blue fish percussion ensemble, Schick travels the globe as percussion guru and soloist. As he plied his trade Wednesday at Sherwood Auditorium in virtuoso solo extravaganzas on a stage littered with percussion instruments of various kinds and collaborated collegially in ensemble works, his mastery proved compelling, even to the most skeptical listener.
But Schick is more than a virtuoso. He is a raconteur, a comedian, and a reciter of serious poetry who guided his audience through a half century of percussion styles and practices with the relaxed confidence of a veteran late-night talk show host. He gave the impression that were he not continually teaching, performing, conducting, rehearsing, and chasing gigs across the continent, he might enjoy hosting such a show.
From the austere, structurally disciplined end of the repertory—Karlheinz Stockhausen’s “Zyklus” and Iannis Xenakis’ “Rebonds”—to the accessible and achingly lyrical—Osvaldo Golijov’s “Mariel” for Cello and Marimba—to the improvisational—Lei Liang’s “Trans”—Schick took his audience on an illuminating adventure that engaged equally heart and brain.
He gave us historical insight performing Lou Harrison’s 1959 Concerto for Violin and Percussion Orchestra, a work that daringly combined traditional orchestral percussion instruments with everyday objects such as inverted washtubs into a bold, gleaming gamelan-like accompaniment to his soaring violin solo. Violinist Michelle Kim sacrificed not an iota of her gorgeous tone to convey Harrison’s angular but frequently ingratiating themes and splashy cadenzas. Schick and his red fish blue fish ensemble realized the percussion orchestra with appropriate passion.
Harrison’s work has been championed by other influential musical leaders such as San Francisco Symphony’s Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, and therein lies much irony, although Schick did not allude to this. In his prime, Harrison’s creative work was either ignored or scorned, especially in academic musical circles, where orthodox 12-tone musical dogma was the one and only path. Today 12-tone composition seams as irrelevant as the Berlin Wall, and the precious works by those serialist ivory tower composers gather dust on library shelves, while minimalists and experimentalists happily embrace the pioneering work of Harrison and Harry Partch.
Liang’s “Trans,” a work written for Schick, contrasted its voluptuous and complex drum and cymbal texture with audience participation. Each member of the audience was supplied with two stones, and prior to the work’s performance, Schick instructed his audience how to use their newly acquired percussion instruments in the context of the piece. The sound of a room full of clicking stones was not unlike hearing a rain shower on the roof of a rustic cabin, and the audience took direction eagerly.
Although Golijov’s “Mariel” was written to commemorate a friend’s passing, it is less an elegy and more an affectionate farewell. Ralph Kirshbaum floated gossamer themes in the cello’s highest range, weaving them into a poignant cantilena, while Schick supplied an accompaniment of gentle, undulating marimba chords.
Schick gave us one conceptual piece, Mark Applebaum’s “Aphasia,” for which the seated maestro supplied an exhaustive set of hand and body movements to a recorded sound track. Although Schick made no sound with his movements, the point was to convince the audience that he was evoking all the sounds coming from the speakers. It struck me as amusing, one of those Zen “sound of one hand clapping” feats.
Gustavo Aguilar’s two movements titled “Wendell’s History for Steve” bookended the performance, each segment providing recorded ostinatos to Wendell Berry poems that Schick recited. At the opening, this ritual did not make much sense, but at the closing it proved the perfect benediction.