The Santa Barbara Symphony offered what was easily its most challenging and innovative opening concert program in memory on Saturday when guest percussionist Ted Atkatz joined the group for Der Gerettete Albericht, Fantasy for percussion and orchestra by Christopher Rouse. Rouse’s wild and wooly contribution to the legacy of Richard Wagner requires the presence of not one but two full drum sets onstage, as well as a battery of various noisemakers that stretched across the entire width of the Granada’s proscenium. Before attempting to describe the style and impact of this fascinating work, let me back up and set the scene a bit more thoroughly.
As Maestro Nir Kabaretti noted in his opening remarks, there have already been many concerts all over the world this year celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of composer Wagner. To add to this monumental global effort, the Santa Barbara Symphony chose an ingeniously indirect approach. The concert on Saturday, October 12, opened with Wagner’s overture to Tannhäuser, an ominous and brooding piece that set the tone for what was to come.
Rouse’s composition was next, but Wagner was hardly left behind, as Der Gerettete Albericht was written as a kind of sequel to the composer’s Ring cycle of operas, with the express intent of elaborating what may have happened to the character Albericht, the angry dwarf who actually fashions the Ring’s ring, among other things. The audience gasped in amazement even before the piece began as a crew loaded in the multiple drum sets. From there, anticipation was further heightened when the black-clad soloist, Ted Atkatz, distributed bright orange earplugs to the front rows. Clearly this would not be an ordinary concerto.
Once the piece began, the effect was ravishing, if at times a shock, especially to those in close proximity to the stage. Atkatz succeeded in making an astounding array of different percussion instruments all sing the same song. It was a kind of blues, not necessarily in the strict musical sense, but in the dramatic sense, as we heard the pain and isolation of this odd character from Wagner well up in all its humanity. The second movement, in which Albericht reflects on the choices he has made, was particularly poignant. But watch out, audience, because then came the finale. As Rouse imagines it, Albericht becomes a rock drummer in the 1970s, and Atkatz made a terrific rocker, slamming the toms for all he was worth and transporting the Granada, at least momentarily, into the world of arena rock.
After the intermission, the Symphony returned to explore outer space with Gustav Holst’s extravagant essay on the cosmos, The Planets. Holst’s range and wit were on special display as the orchestra easily negotiated the many otherworldly tones and textures he uses to suggest the majesty of the spheres. If at times the resemblance of the music to classic movie scores seemed overt, that just meant that we were making a stop at Planet Hollywood. In case anyone had not gotten the point that Holst’s themes are among the most popular in the history of cinema, the orchestra came back out for an encore of the theme music from Star Wars, making for an extremely auspicious debut for what promises to be an exciting symphony season.