May 20, 2016

A percussion concerto tends to be a loud affair.

Having won a Grammy in 2011 for his recording of the Joseph Schwanter concerto, percussionist Christopher Lamb is certainly qualified and experienced at performing a dynamic and bombastic showpiece. But Lamb — who is a featured soloist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this weekend — said he also enjoys performing a piece that shows off a different musical side of percussion.

That piece is the Water Concerto by Chinese composer Tan Dun. Commissioned for Lamb in 1999 by the New York Philharmonic where he is principal percussionist, Water Concerto asks the audience to lean in and be surprised by a theatrical range of sounds that blend percussion with the elemental force of water.

Lamb said the process of creating the piece with Tan was extremely collaborative. Tan knew he wanted to write something elemental, and as he settled on the idea of focusing on water, he and Lamb worked together on figuring out how to translate those sounds to the concert hall. In some cases that meant finding pre-existing instruments like the Waterphone, in others it required having pieces custom built, and in a few instances it required a trip to the department store toy aisle — building rubber Super Ball mallets and using a suspended metal spiraled coil of a Slinky for a sci-fi sound.

A key moment in the development of the piece for Lamb was a conversation he had with Tan about the nature of the falling water sound. There is an inherent pitch bend as water falls or sloshes, which Lamb said was familiar to him, but for Dun it was reminiscent of languages that unlike English use pitch and inflection to form different words.

“That pitch bend is like my language,” Lamb remembers Tan telling him.

That realization, Lamb said, helped put the piece in a new light.

Since it’s premiere by Lamb and the New York Philharmonic, Tan’s Water Concerto has been performed by dozens of orchestras all over the world. According to a survey of 89 American orchestras’ programming, Water Concerto is one of only nine contemporary works written since the 1970s seeing at least three performances this concert season.

Watch Christopher Lamb talk about Tan Dun’s Water Concerto below: