Steven Bailey speaks to composer Jacques Cohen, ahead of a performance of his work at the Queen Elizabeth Hall next week
At classical concerts, soloists usually get the glory – but percussionists have the most fun. This probably makes Evelyn Glennie the happiest musician in the world. For she is undoubtedly the most famous virtuoso percussion player on the planet – a stunning performer on every instrument from the marimba to the tam tam, the barimbulum to the Wrenchophone. Not to mention the batonka.*
“That’s the thing about percussion,” explains conductor/composer Jacques Cohen. “There are always new toys. A violin has been a violin for a long time. But new percussion instruments – with different sound colours and textures – are always emerging.”
Cohen has composed a piece especially for the (relatively normal) vibraphone to be performed by Dame Evelyn next week at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
It’s an instrument normally associated with cool jazz greats, such as Gary Burton or Milt Jackson from the Modern Jazz Quartet.
So prelude 49 for vibraphone and strings is a rare and special visitor to the classical stage – a richly atmospheric piece, which promises to linger in the memory. “It will be the first UK performance,” says Cohen, “and I’m delighted Dame Evelyn is the soloist. We’re rehearsing at the moment and it’s great fun working with her.”
In addition, the programme includes new versions of favourite pieces, including Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition and the celebrated Rachmaninov prelude in C-sharp minor – both arranged for strings by the 46-year-old conductor. The transformation should be fascinating. The Mussorgsky usually contains some wonderfully strong brass playing. The Rachmaninov is distinctly ‘for the piano’.
How will they fare as string pieces, performed by the Isis Ensemble – Jacques’ ‘home’ orchestra? “If there are doubters out there, I hope to prove them wrong!” he said, laughing. “If I hear someone say a piece can’t be done for string orchestra, that’s all it takes. I love a challenge.
“Also on the bill, a second UK premiere – the Concerto for marimba and string orchestra by American composer Eric Ewazen. The marimba is, of course, the wooden precursor of the vibraphone, whose metal keys and electronics updated the instrument for the 20th century and beyond.
“It’s always a special experience seeing a virtuoso percussionist perform live on stage,” says Cohen, a graduate of both Oxford and the Royal College of Music, where he won a coveted conducting scholarship. “The sheer energy and variety of their performance is fascinating – and Dame Evelyn is famous for finding new ways to use percussion.”
Modern scores often call for a slightly alternative approach to the instruments. Says Cohen: “Over the years, I’ve seen the tam tam – a huge gong – struck then dropped into water. And a part written for ‘torn newspaper’, just for the sound it produces. “I must confess, sometimes you pick up a score for the first time and think: ‘Er… I’m sorry, what is this instrument?” Is there anything Cohen would like to share with us in advance of the performance? He thinks for a moment, then adds enigmatically: “There will be some surprises!” And lots of kit.
Percussionists never travel light. The variety of instruments involved means that Jacques’ ‘usual’ Southbank venue – The Purcell Room – would have been too small. “I don’t think the stage could have accommodated everything,” Cohen explains. he marimba alone is about 10 feet long – and that’s just one of the instruments. There are many, many others.” Good Vibes. It’s what great music is all about.
• Jacques performs on 30 March at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre