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Stewart Copeland and BPO offer a crushing ‘Tyrant’

One hundred years ago, according to legend, the Paris premier of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” created such outrage among the largely staid patrons in attendance that a riot – or perhaps a polite society’s version of one – broke out during the performance.

There was no riot in Kleinhans Music Hall on Friday morning, as Stewart Copeland and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Mark Laycock performed Copeland’s  genre-defying “Tyrant’s Crush.” But, as Copeland told me in a recent interview, BPO patrons were quite likely hearing an orchestra doing something “a bit different” than what they’re used to.

Indeed, “Tyrant’s Crush” is a daring, dynamic and challenging piece that is in keeping with Copeland’s history as a composer of beautifully idiosyncratic pieces. It’s a percussion-heavy composition, featuring Copeland performing on a six-piece drum kit along with the Orchestra, and at times, it is daringly bombastic.

Placing the piece in Friday morning’s program immediately following a lovely take on Franz Liszt’s symphonic poem “Les Preludes” underscored the knotty complexity, unusual harmonies, and rhythmic irreverence of Copeland’s piece. But the audience – a fairly light house for this early show, which was essentially a warm-up for Saturday’s 8 p.m. performance - was game for Copeland’s compositional derring-do. They responded to the three-movement piece with a warm ovation, and Copeland looked positively thrilled.

[Interview: Stewart Copeland tells Miers about the power of orchestras]

Then again, Copeland always seems to look positively thrilled when he’s on stage. The energy and enthusiasm he brings to performance have been a constant since the drummer’s days with art-pop giants The Police, and both were there in abundance on Friday, as Copeland performed on a riser elevated at the rear of the Kleinhans stage, his arms often raised above his head as if he was conducting the orchestra with his drum sticks, in a semaphoric sparring battle with conductor Laycock, who seemed to find all of this completely charming. Charming it was, but lest one get the impression that this was all a cutesy “rock star plays with orchestra” affair, “Tyrant’s Crush” proved itself to be no mere trifle or vanity project.

Fans of the late Frank Zappa’s percussion-heavy orchestral pieces – think “Naval Aviation in Art?” or “Pedro’s Dowry,” both of which were at one point conducted by legendary French composer/conductor Pierre Boulez – would find a few familiar signposts in Copeland’s “Crush,” particularly in the percussion-heavy first movement, “Poltroons in Paradise,” which managed to be both pensive and playful, by turns.

Copeland certainly peppered the “Tyrant’s Crush” score with plenty of powerful percussion bits, and the BPO’s percussionists Mark Hodges, Dinesh Joseph, Robert Cross and timpanist Matthew Bassett delivered the goods, weaving their complex figures between Copeland’s drum kit “grooves” and unison wallops.

There were cross-rhythms galore during this movement, and the effect was both invigorating and a touch dizzying, but Copeland held it all together in a manner that seemed effortless, and even threw in a few of his trademark rapid-fire hi-hat triplets for good measure. (Copeland is one of the most distinctive hi-hat players in the history of rock drumming, and though this orchestral piece is not something that one might reasonably refer to as “rock,” Copeland still sounds like Copeland, and “Tyrant’s Crush” can claim conceptual continuity with everything the drummer has done, from “Rumble Fish” to “Orchestralli” to the present day.)

Second movement “Monsters Just Needed Love (But ate the children anyway)” found the listener’s focus drifting toward the strings, as the players engaged in a commanding fury of staccato rhythmic motifs, punctuated by percussive interjections from Copeland and crew. Here, the sometimes knotty harmonic structure eased to allow some light into the room, with pleasing melodic motifs emerging in relief against the Sturm und Drang meant to mark the titular Tyrant’s struggles.

With movement three, “Over the Wall (Or up against it),” Copeland’s gleeful genius emerged front and center, as blaring brass, a Henry Mancini-like bass ostinato, a side-stick drum groove from the composer, and melodic lines that reached heavenward commingled to drive the piece toward its thrilling conclusion.

Complex, serious, and sometimes strident, “Tyrant’s Crush” is also a lot like Copeland himself – a helluva lotta fun.

Stewart Copeland and the BPO will reprise "Tyrant's Crush: Concerto for Trapset and Orchestra" at 8 p.m. Oct. 29. Tickets: (716) 885-5000; bpo.org

email: jmiers@buffnews.com

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