Proms Chamber Music 4: Evelyn Glennie, review: 'expressive'

Dame Evelyn Glennie performs Proms Chamber Music at Cadogan Hall, London
Dame Evelyn Glennie performs Proms Chamber Music at Cadogan Hall, London Credit: BBC/Mark Allan

Entering Cadogan Hall for Evelyn Glennie’s performance, audience members were offered earplugs. This playfully reinforced a stereotype: percussion instruments are all noise, incapable of the subtlety that should be left to more traditional melodic instruments. Think again. In a concert to celebrate her 50th birthday, Dame Evelyn Glennie demonstrated the expressive range of various percussion instruments, one of which had been in existence for only two years.

The first in her field to have international success as a soloist, Glennie was found to be profoundly deaf at 12. The Scottish Grammy award-winner went on to perform the first percussion concerto at the Proms in 1992, dashing about the stage and pushing limits that she would spend the rest of her career extending.

The concert’s opener put her in conversation with another woman who was responsible for the pioneering and innovation of percussion instruments. Japanese composer Keiko Abe (born 1937) had her own television show in the Sixties on which she played and taught the marimba, and worked with Yamaha to extend the instrument’s capabilities for a soloist’s needs.

Abe’s 1995 Prism Rhapsody seems more like a concerto for marimba in its natural state of being scored for an entire orchestra. But here the music was split equally between Glennie and pianist Philip Smith, the percussion taking on some of the more startling orchestral parts, too. Displaying organic, rich chords, as well very soft melodic runs, Glennie’s marimba at times challenged what we have come to expect of its accompanying piano: the two instruments traded places, the marimba becoming more melodic, the piano reminding us that it is itself a percussion instrument.

Dame Evelyn Glennie performs Proms Chamber Music at Cadogan Hall, London Credit: BBC/Mark Allan

And then Glennie challenged what we have come to expect from instruments in general. In Orologeria aureola, co-written by the performer and Philip Sheppard, Glennie played a halo: a flying saucer-like steel handpan which was propped between her knees and a stool. Struck with the palms, it was similar in tone to a steel drum, with a slow, resonant pitch-bend to its echo.

Twenty-three-year-old Bertram Wee’s Dithyrambs was composed for the aluphone, an instrument invented just two years ago by Danish percussionist Kai Stensgaard. Made from aluminium bells, it is designed to imitate the sound of striking a fence’s post cap. The piece and Glennie’s playing were thrilling. As she highlighted in a short introduction, there was a freedom to playing on such a new instrument: no-one has figured out the ways it shouldn’t be played. Here Glennie struck it with beaters, hands, knuckles and nails, working from a mild glockenspiel sound to a more abrasive gong.

But it was a longer piece by John Psathas, itself unremarkable, that gave Glennie a platform to explore the true possibilities of percussive playing. A shimmer of silver dress and silver hair, she turned from the marimba and chimes to a full kit. A true master can turn mediocre pieces into a joy, and her performance was mesmerising and deeply sensitive. It also in some way showed percussion to have advantages over other melodic instruments. Glennie went beyond octaves, and the earplugs given out at the beginning were safe in their plastic pouches.