As rain enhances a percussion premiere, hundreds soak it all in
By ANDREW PATNER August 26, 2012 9:02PM
Droplets spray as a drummer pounds beats during the Midwest premiere of John Luther Adams' "Inuksuit" during a steady and sometimes heavy rain on Sunday, Aug. 26, 2012, at Millennium Park. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
Updated: September 28, 2012 6:21AM
A week after the 2012 Grant Park Music Festival came to an unexpectedly moving conclusion with a haunting presentation of a rarely performed Dvorak dramatic cantata, “The Bride’s Nightgown,” the city’s new Millennium Park Loops and Variations summer series drew to a close Sunday evening with an even more memorable, even spiritual occasion.
Had there been no rain (and warnings of more) on Sunday, several thousand people might have confronted an array of 105 or so percussionists standing trancelike at 5:30 in the midst of the park’s Great Lawn, reverently holding everything from sea shells to wood blocks to plastic tubes (for twirling) and paper cones (for chanting into) to simple pairs of rocks to launch the Midwest premiere of Alaska composer John Luther Adams’ 2009 “Inuksuit.”
As it was, though, the gray skies and the soft drizzle kept the initial attendance numbers low. It was a tribute to Adams, 59, a true compositional magician, and the dozens of performers assembled by Chicago-based eighth blackbird and percussion guru/director Doug Perkins that, even as drizzle turned to rain and rain began coming down in torrents, not a soul appeared to leave in the course of this almost ritualistic hourlong exchange of rhythms, sounds and sound patterns. This communal early evening was one of the most stirring experiences in my 45 years of concertgoing.
Premiered in Banff, Alberta, shortly after Adams completed the concept, the work, whose name refers to totemic stone piles used by Arctic Inuit people for geographic markings, received its first New York performance indoors (!) with eighth blackbird in 2011 before getting an outdoor treatment last summer in Manhattan’s Uptown Morningside Park and having its California bow at this summer’s Ojai Festival.
But I’ll venture to say that none of these presentations could match the way nature became a full actor in Millennium Park, not just the provider of an occasional breeze or birdsong. Nor could any one of them have had the intimacy and sense of stick-to-it-iveness that the rain forced on audience and music makers alike here. I think I’ll always be disappointed in the future when a striking of a drum set doesn’t yield a corresponding upward bounce and spray of water.
Wherever it’s given, “Inuksuit” asks its listeners to walk around the array of musicians, and where you stand, or stroll, determines how you hear moreso perhaps than what you do. Layering and slow but insistent development are central to Adams’ musical language, heard here in 2010 in a Chicago Symphony Orchestra MusicNOW concert and in two versions of his 2007 “Dark Waves” at the CSO itself.
Xylophones, recorders and the basic triangle herald the piece’s final bell-like section of 10 minutes or so. The audience of about 500, now mostly seated under the covered portion of the Pavilion seats, grew even more quiet and attentive, a powerful display of serious, if joyous, listening. As the rain whipped up and the sounds died down, I realized that my head was at last dry again. But my face was wet, covered with tears.
Andrew Patner is critic-at-large at WFMT-FM (98.7)