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Concert review: TorQ Percussion Quartet launches its first Toronto series with a bang

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Adam Campbell, Daniel Morphy, Jamie Drake and Richard Burrows performed Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood on tuned metal gongs on Saturday night (John Terauds iPhone photo).

The made-in-Toronto TorQ Percussion Quartet has spent so much time on the road over the past three seasons that the boys have barely been seen and heard in their hometown — until now. It was a pleasure to rediscover their engaging blend of technical prowess, youthful flair and gentle humour on Saturday night, at the first of four concerts they are presenting in town this season.

Richard Burrows, Adam Campbell, Jamie Drake and Daniel Morphy chose the intimately bohemian downstairs theatre at the Great Hall to reintroduce themselves to Toronto in a programme that covered the full range of music for percussion, from complex rhythmic studies to improvisation.

Because the modern Western percussion ensemble is a relatively new creation, the music is new as well. Like Nexus, the quartet’s inspiration, TorQ is making a point of commissioning and creating new works while also celebrating successful pieces from an older generation of composers.

The main pieces centred on the two marimbas and vibraphones that dominated the small stage, but there were also starring roles for drums, tuned gongs as well as an assortment of small percussion objects for the programme’s brilliant finale.

What made the evening special was the tight connection between these four players, which gave everything they did a sense of unbreakable continuity and energy.

Three of the pieces on the programme were new: Cappahayden, a fascinating study in overlays of complex rhythm and tone by Newfoundland composer Rob Power; The Blue Guitar, a four-piece suite by TorQ’s Jamie Drake inspired by a 1937 poem by Wallace Stevens, and Modulations, a three-movement — fast-slow-fast — look at the many emotional possibilities of keyboard percussion that interwwaves several musical genres.

The real powerhouse piece of the first half of the concert was the “..dust into dust…” first movement of Alaskan composer John Luther Adams’ Strange and Sacred Noise, completed in 1997: a four-drum blast of intense rhythmic play that I could feel deep in my ribcage.

This was the actual fanfare that announced that the TorQ quartet has arrived.

The boys decided to effectively embellish on a 1973 piece by Steve Reich, Music for Pieces of Wood, by performing it on tuned gongs picked at random and thereby creating unpredictable and fascinating tonal as well as rhythmic effects.

The evening’s official closer, Natural Resources — or, what to do ’til the power comes on, a 31-year-old piece by the late Toronto composer Ann Southam, was funny on so many levels.

The first smile is in the title, given that Southam wrote the piece for the Canadian Electronic Music Ensemble. The second chuckle is in realising that the structure of the work is so simple that it can be used as a kindergarten exercise. And the final, full belly laugh was seeing what sort of lighthearted yet sophisticated work the performers made of it.

It was the best possible way to whet the appetite for the next three concerts this season, each one set in a different venue and featuring a different repertoire. (The next concert focuses on Brazilian music, at Lula Lounge on Nov. 11.)

The quartet also joins the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in its season-opening performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana on Nov. 14 at Koerner Hall.

 John Terauds

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