GEORGINA BENISON –
Students from seventeen educational establishments around Muscat, from ‘Our Planet International School’, Indian, Philippine and Sri Lankan schools to ‘Sultan Qaboos University’, packed the auditorium at the Royal Opera House, Muscat on Tuesday morning for a performance of a ‘Percussion Presentation’ extraordinaire. There were two shows, in Arabic and English.
The four very talented Italian musicians in the ‘Tetraktis Percussion Ensemble’ teamed up with zany Omani actors, Anas al Hajri and Ibrahim al Azri, dressed as intrepid 19th Century explorers, and took the assembled audience on a tour of the globe for an hour, from Africa to Japan, in rain and in shine. There were cartoon projections, close circuit TV to enlarge the live performances for people at the back, a giant ‘Feodor Guide to Percussion’ book, and an annoying bumble bee which needed swatting. But most importantly of all, the stage was full of different instruments which would be explained and played during the proceedings. The show was very cleverly designed to require only a short attention span for each subject before moving on to another topic, all broken up with plenty of slapstick and buffoonery. A tropical rainstorm erupted on stage and screen, and members of the cast came on bearing twirling umbrellas as they honed in on wooden percussion to play Alice Gomez’ appropriately evocative, “Raindrops”.
Most attention was paid to the family of tuned instruments: Auntie Marimba from Africa, (a large wooden keyboard with resonating tubes); Niece Xylophone – a smaller wooden version; Cousin Vibraphone, made famous in the Jazz Halls of early 20th Century USA, and Nephew Glockenspiel – the smallest metallophone which gives a sense of magic and wonder. A Jazz vibraphone solo was played superbly with four mallets by Gianni Maestrucci. Our burlesque tour guides had a field day running around these musical heavy weights, but Ibrahim always brought a sense of gravity to the didactic quality of the show by reading out interesting anecdotes on the historical context from his giant ‘Feodor’. It was also quite handy for butting lazy Anas on the head each time he fell asleep in his Safari chair, conveniently placed stage right!
An interactive element was introduced in the form of interlocking clapping rhythms, led by Laura Mancini who divided the audience into two groups and conducted them to get louder and softer, and when to stop. There was very clever use of bookwhacker sticks in rainbow colours, showing just how these hollow tubes can play a real tune, “Tubi” by Leonardo Ramadori, in the hands – and knees, feet and heads – of professional musicians.
The buzzing bee swatting segued neatly into a virtuoso performance of Rimsky Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” with eight hands on the Marimba, arranged by Gianluca Saveri, in a constant moto perpetuo as the musicians moved round the instrument in a life-sized game of Musical Chairs. Other insect sounds were emulated on the Xylophone in Giovanni Sollima’s “Millennium Bug Suite”.
It would have been difficult to cover all percussion instruments in the world in just an hour, so Orchestral and Latin groups were deliberately omitted from this presentation. The Bongos from Cuba were introduced, the Arabic ‘Darrabukkah’ Goblet-drum and African Tabla were given centre stage for a moment, with some technically dazzling stuff – accompanied by traditional Omani hand-clapping as ‘audience participation’!
The climax of the show was a move to the back of the stage where quite a few tam-tams had been set up for a Taiko-like tour de force from Japan. Alesandro Annunziata’s “Ritual” dance for the whole ensemble presented the rhythmically complex style of traditional Japanese drumming, complete with close up camera relay on the big screen to show just how physically energetic Taiko can be. The Finale came in an unexpected vocal performance of Ernst Toch’s brilliant “Geographical Fugue” – a fast, unsung patter of town, river and country names of the world, playing on their inherent verbal rhythms. ‘Oman’ was cleverly substituted for ‘Tibet’ to give local relevance – and then it was all over, to rapturous applause.
The show ended within the hour, and a deeply engrossed assembly of students, of all ages and backgrounds, made their way happily out of the theatre to return to their schools, just a little more knowledgeable about the ‘World of Percussion’.