It was a splashy affair, in every sense of the word. People who didn't realize they were seeing the concert hall equivalent of Shamu moved from their seats in the front row. But their eyes were still bombarded with a spectacle.
And John Shaw, principal percussionist of the Florida Orchestra, showed just how virtuosic playing in a tub of water can be.
He's leading a group of two other percussionists — David Coash and Kurt Grissom — this weekend in performances of Tan Dun's Water Concerto. Friday's performance at the Straz Center in Tampa was nothing short of impressive. I heard several people discussing during intermission — as the stage was being mopped — that they couldn't understand how Tan Dun notated the piece on paper. In actuality, the nuances and how to achieve them are not exactly on the page.
Shaw said at the pre-concert talk that he learned a lot of the non-standard techniques used during the piece in the bathtub as a 2-year-old. The rest he learned from a DVD of the composer conducting the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.
Tan Dun wanted the work to be intoxicating, both aurally and visually. The instruments are fascinating to watch and hear, but the orchestra added another layer by turning down the main lights and illuminating the large bowls of water used throughout.
There were quite a few standout moments during the performance. It started with Shaw playing a waterphone in the audience. His slow, ritualistic walk to the stage was reminiscent of a thurifer in a Catholic ceremony (the person who carries the incense to the altar). Shortly after he arrived, the ducklike sounds of deconstructed wind instruments started. Then the percussionists started slapping and flicking the water in synchronized rhythms.
At one point, Shaw was in unison with principal cellist James Connors as he dipped a gong in and out of the water to match pitch — not easy. But perhaps most impressive was when Shaw placed four wooden salad bowls in the water top down. As he struck them with his hands and sticks creating complex rhythms, they rotated around the basins becoming moving targets. Not a single miss, at least to my eye.
After Shaw traveled to the back of the stage to play a modified vibraphone, the strings got to play a bit of percussion themselves by slapping all of their strings in between phrases. Shaw didn't stop the rhythms when he moved back to the front while striking his mallets together, weaving through the violinists. He finished the work by dipping a large sieve into the basin, lifting it over his head to create a waterfall effect, and then plunging it back into the bowl. The biggest splash of the night. Shaw, drenched at this point, was surprised when a little girl who was brave enough to stay in the front row reached up to shake his hand while taking his bows.
The Haydn that started the concert, Symphony No. 103 in E-flat major, was not bad by any means, but I've honestly heard most sections of the orchestra sound significantly better. And after the excitement of the Water Concerto, Sibelius' Symphony No. 2 in D major seemed a bit pedantic at times, although an admirable performance. Some of the audience shouted "Bravo!" as guest conductor Rossen Milanov painstakingly made sure to acknowledge anyone who had even a small solo.