Third Coast Percussion wasn’t originally scheduled to close out Celebrity Series of Boston’s Stave Sessions, but that they ended up doing so was fitting. The Sessions — six nights of concerts in Berklee’s glass-enclosed, club-like dining hall — marked a somewhat radical departure for Celebrity Series, venturing into the brave new(-ish) world of classical music in nontraditional venues with a sustained dose of contemporary music. Percussion music, for its part, is inherently radical, stripping music down to essentials: time, gesture, attack. The Chicago-based quartet — David Skidmore, Robert Dillon, Peter Martin, and Sean Connors, making their Boston debut — emphasized that quality with a concert of further distillations.
At the center was Steve
Reich’s 1973 “Music for Pieces of Wood,” ringing changes on a single sound — the thwack of claves — and a single process, a variegated layering of repeated rhythmic motives. Its influence seemed to extend across the program. Owen Clayton Condon’s “Fractalia” alternated lapping, modal waves of marimba and stutter-stepping tom-tom breaks; Skidmore’s own “Trying” surrounded a pulsing marimba chorale with skittering, Scandinavian-metal inspired metrical shifts, punctuated with cymbals and kick drum. Other pieces were even more pertinacious. Thierry De May’s “Table Music” limited itself to a single instrument — a tabletop — which Skidmore, Martin, and Connors tapped, knocked, and scratched in circumscribed loops. Augusta Read Thomas’s “Prayer” (the second movement of her suite “Resounding Earth,” written for the group), though rhythmically far from Reich’s pulse-centered style, likewise explored a single timbre, the keening ring of singing bowls.
Peter Garland’s “Apple Blossom” was the most elemental, a gradually-shifting view of a single, soft, rolled marimba chord. Even the slapstick of Alexandre Lunsqui’s “Shi” (another trio, this time for Skidmore, Connors, and Dillon) grew from a single idea: chopsticks as beaters, producing a tight weave of clicks and clatter. Lunsqui and De May also stylized the physicality of performance, privileging the visual alongside the aural. That suited the players, whose energy was as much choreographic as musical: Movements and interpretations were both exact and amplified, phrasing and gesture inseparably enthusiastic.
That most radical of composers, John Cage, ended up reassembling the evening’s deconstructions. Cage’s 1941 “Third Construction” gathers a determinedly diverse compendium of instruments, standard and exotic, traditional and nontraditional (tin cans are prominent); the music, which the group performed with absolute aplomb, is exuberantly profuse — and surprisingly, thoroughly, and self-sufficiently orchestral. In Cage’s day, liberating the percussion section was revolutionary; and what’s a revolution without a good declaration of independence?
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@