When brothers Mark and Paul Yancich perched on drum stools Thursday night, executing thunderous rhythmic rolls on five large copper timpani, they became arena rock gods ruling from atop outsized drum kits. Momentarily without accompaniment from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the brothers traded off solos, passing the spotlight from one to the other.
This pause in the music — the unaccompanied third movement of James Oliverio’s “Dynasty: Double Timpani Concerto” — was designed to highlight the virtuosic potential of an instrument usually ensconced behind the orchestra. Instead, Mark Yancich, who has served as principal timpani of the ASO since 1981, and his brother Paul (who serves in the same role with the Cleveland Orchestra) were center stage Thursday night. “Dynasty” is their own commission, which was given its world premiere by the ASO in 2011.
That third movement, a bit of unencumbered timpani joy, was written for them originally as an encore for a performance of Philip Glass’ “Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra,” the only other extant double timpani concerto. The solos are worked into the middle of a five-movement composition that calls for the timpanists to engage in intricate rhythmic interplay, pass and receive tender melodies from the orchestra, and provide added depth to bass lines – all to varying success.
For much of the piece, the orchestra is given sparse orchestra accompaniment to play and mostly serves to prop up the percussionists. On Thursday, the first movement started with a sense of urgency, and it took a while for the orchestra, under the baton of music director Robert Spano, to gel with the soloists. There are radiant sections of music throughout the concerto, and orchestral soloists are sometimes given interesting, angular music to bring out from the accompaniment, but for the most part, the timpani players lead the way. This brings a unique timbre to the front of the orchestra, but the piece sometimes comes off as an intricate, involved percussion exercise.
Richard Prior’s “…of shadow and light… (incantations for orchestra)” opened Thursday’s program with a disquieting, ominous harp figure. That lone harp ushered in soft, ephemeral ensemble playing that quickly morphed into heavily accented rhythmic dynamism. Spano emphasized these delightful contrasts – intense but controlled cacophony juxtaposed with nearly still beauty. The composition, which the ASO premiered in 2013, seems to go by in a flash of impressionistic tone colors and, yes, a barrage of percussion. Prior is a longtime friend of the orchestra, and the ASO continues to benefit greatly from the association. (The ASO will be premiering Prior’s fourth symphony next year.)
At least a few measures of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 are familiar even to people with little interest in classical music, so any performance of the seminal work is weighed down with the baggage of expectation. On Thursday, Spano and the ASO created a magical 5th symphony that sped along at a tempo that emphasized the composition’s dramatic underpinnings without getting mired in mawkish sentimentality. In the third movement, the horn-led martial section benefited from a smooth-edged attack, breaking beautifully into a frenzied, and rewarding, closing movement.
The orchestra is scheduled to record both the Oliverio and Prior compositions on the next ASO Media disc, which will be made up entirely of new music. The album will not only serve to increase the new music bona fides of the orchestra, but provide another avenue to appreciate two contemporary composers Spano has championed.
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with Mark and Paul Yancich
8 p.m. March 8. Additional performance at 8 p.m. May 11. $33-$98. Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.