Third Coast Percussion at Singleton Center: Chamber music like you’ve never heard it

Mark Robinson
Contributing writer

The Sonia Vlahcevic Concert Hall at the Singleton Center played host this past Friday night to Third Coast Percussion, a Chicago-based percussion quartet making the final stop of its seasonal tour. Third Coast’s fascinating repertoire, which provided “a taste of contemporary percussion literature,” drew from many modern composers, including the likes of John Cage and the members themselves.

“I couldn’t have gone on this tour and not come (to perform) back here,” said Peter Martin, Third Coast member and assistant professor of Percussion at VCU’s Department of Music. Third Coast Percussion has performed throughout the country during their first four years, taking the stage at prestigious venues like the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage and the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Society.

The group that the Chicago Tribune called “sonically spectacular” did not disappoint in one last concert on Martin’s home turf.

Tucked cozily into a stage packed thick with various percussive implements, Third Coast began the first half of the show with three pieces from composer John Cage – widely considered one of the biggest influences on avant-garde post-WWII music.

“Second Construction,” an ominous mid-tempo piece, crept into the auditorium with an eerie marimba intro and subtle gong rolls. A formal introduction from Peter Martin transitioned into the second piece, “Credo in Us,” whose original score calls for a phonograph –  Third Coast, taking a modern approach, substituted an iPod Touch. The switch drew laughs from both the crowd and the performers.

The last of the three Cage pieces, “Third Construction,” wrapped up the show’s first half. The piece, which was divided into 24 equal-length sections, displayed the ensemble’s clockwork-precise synchronicity. The group utilized “an arsenal of instruments” complete with pots and pans, a lion roar and a conch shell to perform the ten minute long piece.

“We gave Peter the conch shell parts ‘cause it’s his school,” member David Skidmore said. He also explained the history and motives behind Cage’s oeuvre, calling on a instance when Cage was asked if he minded people laughing during his music. His answer, according to Skidmore: “I’ve always found laughter preferable to tears.”

After a brief intermission, the crowd returned to find the stage rearranged: two marimbas and a vibraphone were added, and would be staples in nearly the entire second half of the show.

“Ta and Clap” by Nico Muhly featured each of the four members on marimba. Alejandro Vinao’s “Arabesco Infinito,” a marimba/vibraphone duet between Martin and Owen Clayton Condon, was introduced as a piece inspired by “fractal geometry, Islamic art and chaos theory.” Martin’s prowess on marimba was matched by Owen Clayton Condon’s skills on the vibraphone, and the piece was performed masterfully.

Skidmore and Robert Dillon returned to the stage to join Martin and Condon on Peter Garland’s “Apple Blossom,” an intoxicating contrast to the rest of Third Coast’s repertoire. Each member played with four mallets on marimba, creating rumbling overtones that filled the auditorium with so much sound it was as if an orchestra was performing. The crowd cheered the minimally-styled, hypnotic tonal balance long after its conclusion.

Third Coast picked up the pace with “In Contact,” a piece that member David Skidmore originally commissioned for a different ensemble. The three-movement piece was written to limit the number of instruments that the performers used. The intro to the first movement exploded throughout the hall, startling many who were still in the lull created by “Apple Blossom.” The echo of tom-toms boomed and reverberated before the subdued second movement began. The third movement picked up where the first left off and ended the piece bombastically. The finale, “Quadruple Helix,” was considerably shorter than the others the quartet performed, but proved to be an excellent finale due to its incorporation of the ensemble’s strong suits.

After multiple bows from the ensemble and extended applause from the audience, Third Coast Percussion ended the final show of their tour – leaving their Richmond audience eager and buzzing for their next visit.

Visit Third Coast Percussion, noted by Time Out Chicago for their “chops, polish, and youthful joy in performing,” on their website at for full-length mp3s and more info on their debut album, “Ritual Music.”

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