Concert review: A performance featuring only percussion is a triumph

Percussion is the oldest group of musical instruments known to mankind, and has existed in every civilisation and culture through the ages. As its punned title suggests, this concert of percussion music, part of Esplanade's Spectrum series, posed a conundrum to listeners at its outset: Can a programme featuring only untuned percussion hold the interest of an audience over 90 minutes?

On Sunday at Esplanade Recital Studio, an overwhelming yes was provided by professional percussionist Eugene Toh, an alumnus of Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and London's Royal College of Music, and four of his colleagues. As long as one suspends pre-conceived ideas about the absence of melody or harmony, and delves into a different dimension defined by timbre and rhythm, anything is possible.

Eight very diverse works were presented in this literally striking concert, beginning with Thierry de Mey's Musique De Table (Table Music). Toh together with Bernard Yong and Tan Lee Ying were seated at a table with wooden boards where plates would normally be. Their spiel involved applying a variety of touches to the boards, including slapping, stroking, clapping and rubbing in a delightfully synchronised choreography of six bare hands and the sounds they produced.

American percussionist-composer Casey Cangelosi was represented by two pieces, both with solos by Toh. Glamour involved the strict beat of a metronome, accompanied by the varied rhythms and timbres by striking surfaces of glass, bamboo and metal. It made for a quite exquisite symphony of repeated rhythmic patterns.

More contrived was his Bad Touch, which used taped sounds backing Toh's soliloquy with drumstick while seated in complete darkness. It also seemed gratuitous to have the verbatim quote of Bach's First Prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier while Toh operated two hand-held LED lights in the segment called The Constellations.

No such worries for Yousif Sheronick's Duo 77, which had Toh and Rei Lim on frame drums beating out cyclical rhythms based on South Indian patterns. Both were on different meters and tracks yet were able to coordinate their parts with uncommon precision and grossly understated virtuosity.

They were joined by Tan in two movements from Guo Wenjing's Xi (Drama), which involved three pairs of Chinese cymbals struck in a multitude of ways. How different these small but clangorous objects sounded when brought together vigorously, or gently cupped such that echoes are brought to bear between two surfaces, or struck with mallets. The processes mirrored those of Beijing opera, far more dramatic and theatrical than initially suggested.

An element of fusion distinguished Carnatic musician Trivandrum D. Rajagopal's Nada Laya, which saw the composer playing the mridangam opposite Toh's frame drum. How a relatively straight forward beat of eight counts (with Lim serving as a time-keeper) could be made to sound this complex was the true wonder and mystery of Carnatic music and percussion technique itself.

The first movement from Nebojsa Zivkovic's Trio Per Uno for bass drum, tom toms and Chinese gongs provided yet another tour de force for Toh with Yong and Tan, huddled in a corner of the stage in an almost intimate face-off. The rhythms got increasingly frenetic with the introduction of additional textures and beats.

Quite reluctantly, the concert had to end with Shane Shanahan's Saidi Swing, featuring four different instruments in a syncopated North Egyptian rhythm. Variations of that rhythm soon took over in a riot of exuberant sound, which drew the evening's drumming to a heady close.

The five performers were then treated to that most welcome of percussive sounds: the applause of an appreciative audience.