TONGUES OF FIRE. For percussion and orchestra: 2 flutes (second flute doubling on piccolo), 2 oboes (second oboe doubling on English horn), 2 clarinets in B-flat (first clarinet doubling on clarinet in E-flat, second clarinet doubling on bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 (or 8 or 12) French horns in F, 2 trumpets in B-flat, 1 tenor trombone, 1 bass trombone, 1 tuba, 4 orchestral percussion, strings: min. 8, 7, 6, 6, 4. 40 minutes. Commissioned by the Scotia Festival of Music for Evelyn Glennie and Beverley Johnston with partial support from the Canada Council for the Arts. 2007. Title of movements: (1) In Darkness and Fear, (2) Eternity's Heartbeat, (3) Of This World, (4) To the Ends of the Earth. Score and parts available through PROMETHEAN EDITIONS.

Note: The song ETERNITY'S HEARTBEAT now exists in stand-alone versions for soprano/piano, marimba/piano and piano/fourhands and can be ordered independently.

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Commissioned by the Scotia Festival of Music for percussionists Evelyn Glennie and Beverley Johnston with partial support from the Canada Council of the Arts, Tongues of Fire is a concerto for percussion and orchestra in four movements set in alternating keys (movements 1 and 3 in D and 2 and 4 in A). As the title implies, there is a Pentecostal theme running through the piece but not in any programmatic sense. It is more a meditation on the emotional and psychological states of Christ’s disciples during the early days of the Church than a depiction of the story of the Pentecost. It is also a reflection on the turbulent times that we live in presently and our desperate search for some semblance of structure in the midst of ever growing discontinuity and fragmentation. 

“In Darkness and Fear”, the short first movement, is a depiction of the uncertainty and fear that is the lot of anyone who experiences loss of faith and/or persecution. It is without a doubt, the “Heavy Metal” movement of the concerto, riding on an ‘unsteady’ beat, but otherwise reminiscent of 1960’s rock music. The ‘power trips’ of the percussion (both soloist and section percussion) invite a response from an orchestra playing at extreme registers and dynamics and occasionally surging forth in extreme numbers (as many as 12 French horns may be employed in the first and last movements of the work). The upper register is penetrated by extremely high piccolo, flute and a ‘wonky’ E-flat clarinet, while the low and middle registers are punctuated by percussion and brass blasting at full volume. Vocal sounds of aggression and suffering as well as woodwind multiphonic shrieks and aggressive horn glissandi complete this picture. Occasionally, this aggression gives way to the most quiet (almost inaudible by comparison) brief moments of introspection which function as nothing more than a springboard for further aggression and violence. As is usually the case, violence and aggression have the benefit of impact but not of endurance. Accordingly, the first movement is disproportionately short in duration, compared to the following three movements. 

“Eternity’s Heartbeat”, the second movement, is based on a pop song by the same title which is meant to accompany performances and recordings of Tongues of Fire. A sound recording of the song itself is performed from the sound system in the hall just before the actual performance of this movement. “Eternity’s Heartbeat” is the marimba movement of the concerto, starting with a quiet theme in the low register of the instrument reminiscent of Saint-Saëns, while its main theme acts as a refrain in a strophic song. This latter theme is in constant and sequential modulation, and although easily memorable, it travels through several keys and never ends where it started. Unlike the relatively static key structure of the movements surrounding it, “Eternity’s Heartbeat” is in constant tonal flux. The movement ends in the key it started but it does so in a tonally unexpected manner, i.e. through modulation, the marimba gradually rising to its upper-most register thus chronicling a journey from darkness to light. Combining 19th Century Romantic music with lyrical popular music of the present, “Eternity’s Heartbeat” is an island of peace and grace within the turbulent ocean of the rest of the concerto. 

“Of This World”, the third movement, is a psychological study on the darker side of human interactions. Drawing its musical inspiration from the Pentecostal “speaking in tongues” musical traditions of the American south and mid-west, it chronicles the uneasy relationship between potentially aggressive instruments, such as percussion and the rest of the orchestra. This relationship is fragile at best and very easily threatened by the percussion. So when the soloist is engaging in a display of virtuosity for its own sake, she* begins to gradually raise the level of resentment towards her by the rest of the players in the orchestra. The first to react is the concertmaster who is more keenly aware of the spot light focusing increasingly on the soloist with every new pyrotechnic display. The soloist is gradually becoming aware of the concertmaster’s displeasure and reacts in an uncharacteristically aggressive manner: she challenges him to a duel. As the soloist begins to realize that she will loose the semi-improvised duel (after all, the violin has access to every rhythmic configuration available to the percussionist, but also to considerably richer pitch pallet), she resorts to violence. Eventually the soloist literally ‘drowns’ the concertmaster to silence with the sheer volume of her playing. When the concertmaster becomes thus belittled and silenced, the rest of the orchestra blindly follows the soloist for a while, but then the unchecked aggression of the soloist becomes a survival challenge for the orchestral players as well. It is their turn to loose the battle with the soloist. The soloist thus unchecked enters a cadenza which is totally improvised and resembles a tantrum followed by a psychological and emotional ‘melt-down’. At the moment when the spasmodic outbursts of the percussionist give way to silence, the woodwinds and strings enter with a gentle theme that has been briefly heard before in the course of the movement . Here it sounds like mist from Heaven. The meek inherit the Earth. 

“To the Ends of the Earth” is an epic finale. The main theme was actually written a few years earlier as a music proposal for the soundtrack of an “Alexander the Great” film that was never made. The music’s Hollywood character is unmistakable. Making overt references to the ‘Hans Zimmer’ soundtrack orchestra (with its large numbers of French Horns), the score calls for up to twelve French Horns which some times play as a choir alone against a battery of percussion. In Tongues of Fire, this movement represents the evangelical fervour of Paul’s message to the nations. In some ways his evangelizing was no different than the Hellenizing fervour of Alexander before him, with the exception that Paul’s message was promoted by the power of Christ’s promise of Eternal Life while Alexander’s message was promoted by the sword (as was, unfortunately, Christ’s message later on). For this reason, I found the earlier “Alexander” theme appropriate for the message of this movement. In the underlying psychological drama of the larger work, the egotistical soloist of the previous movement is now joining forces first by the orchestral percussionists and finally with the entire orchestra, consciously avoiding antagonisms with any of the players and thus gradually transforming herself from a spot light seeker to a genuine leader. There is a grander purpose to this movement and the task can only be accomplished in a synergistic manner. These are not the precious moments in the company of a Master that spoke of unconditional love and “turning the other cheek”, more amply represented by the second movement of the work although the “refrain” material from “Eternity’s Heartbeat” resurfaces in the finale and becomes the harmonic foundation for the tango-like music of the marimba. This is the music of action and of surging forward with all the spiritual dangers that such an enterprise entails but also with all the spiritual rewards achieved by subordinating the self to a larger communal purpose. So the four movements of the concerto could be understood as four stages of the ego’s transformation, expressed through the soloist’s constantly changing relationship with the orchestra. 

The triumphant ending notwithstanding, Tongues of Fire ultimately dwells on the less transcendent side of Life. In retrospect, I believe it reflects an ever growing frustration with my own slow growing spiritual development at the time of its composition. It was written in a time when quite a few people dear to my heart were being tested spiritually and physically, and the kind of energy required from me was more than was available, mainly due to my slow spiritual progress. It may also have to do with the fact that the world of percussion and its potential for sonic aggression encourages meditation on that potential and the dire consequences of exploring it. (Pyrrichean Dances, my previous percussion double concerto, is also a meditation on similar themes). Whatever the reason, the work is an honest personal reflection on our world and I am offering it to my listeners as nothing more than this. 

Tongues of Fire is dedicated to Evelyn Glennie and Beverley Johnston, the two soloists for whom it was written, and to Chris Wilcox, Artistic Director of the Scotia Festival of Music, who has caused the work to come to life.  

—Christos Hatzis

* The gender definitions for soloist and concertmaster simply apply to the circumstances of the first performance of the work. 


Premiere performances (2): June 10, 2007. Beverley Johnston, percussion; The Scotia Festival Orchestra under the direction of Alain Trudel. Sir James Dunn Theatre, Dalhause Arts Centre, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

May 24, 26, 8:00 PM. Evelyn Glennie, percussion; Vancouver Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Bramwell Tovey. Orpheum Theatre, Vancouver, British Columbia.


Reviews and Comments:

Tongues of Fire is an eloquent and moving work, representing the conflict of ego in the form of the soloist, and society (the orchestra). It rises to terrifying levels of sound during the heat of the struggle and is musically, utterly convincing in its complexity and noble in its ambition. Beverley Johnston is Canada’s gift to the world of solo percussion, and Hatzis taxed her musicianship and extraordinary technical mastery to the limit as she travelled from the front, where her marimba, vibraphone and tuned gongs were positioned, to the back of the orchestra where she could lay to with a will on gangs of toms and a big bass drum. Behind her, percussion instruments were spread from wall to wall, requiring six percussionists to handle all the assignments...12 French horns gave considerable substance to the heroic sound of the outer two movements...The concerto pitches the soloist against the orchestra in what becomes a fevered duel for supremacy. The concert master, violinist Mark Fewer, steps forward to champion the orchestra and he and the soloist start competing. When she realizes he has more notes and tonal resources than she, she overwhelms him with power. He concedes. But she too collapses briefly over her bass drum. A Pyrrhic victory...The second movement is full of sweetness and repose, prefaced by a pop song, Eternity’s Heartbeat, sung and recorded by Patricia Rozario and played on Sunday’s concert as a prelude to the second movement. That movement, sounding at times like the sound score to an epic movie, relieves, but only temporarily, the opening shots of the battle between soloist and orchestra in the brief but ferocious first movement. The final movement resolves the conflict of a work characterized at times by multiphonics in the winds, harmonics in the strings, and shouts and screams by the orchestra members contributing to the urgency of this electrifyingly expressive work. Stephen Pedersen, THE CHRONICLE & HERALD (Canada) June 12, 2007.

There's something ariel-like about watching the Scottish percussionist extraordinaire Evelyn Glennie fly around her battery of drums on the stage barefoot in front of an orchestra....On Saturday she premiered a concerto by a Canadian composer and a very good one, Toronto's Christos Hatzis, whose work I've admired before. Called Tongues of Fire, it's mainly for marimba and orchestra but involves far more than marimba, only some of the other instruments being the vibraphone and cloud gongs. Cloud - that lovely word - describes an atmospheric work of moods that range from the dynamically thunderous and sharp to the seductively impressionistic and vague. The work is sensationally beautiful, all four movements, but especially the second, which begins with a sensuous, mysterious pop song sung by a soprano to a piano before it becomes the basis for the movement proper. It was as interesting to watch as to hear. When did you last hear a duel between a solo violin (the excellent Joan Blackman) and a bass drum in which every note was clear? This admirably approachable concerto is subtly crafted, fully integrating the percussion part with the orchestral part and the rhythms are fascinating with all the sexy ostinatos, the bones of rhythm. Even by Vancouver Symphony standards, the playing was exceptional and the house looked full. Lloyd Dykk, CANADA.COM, May 25, 2008; THE VANCOUVER SUN, May 28, 2008.

Dame Evelyn rocks! No stranger to VSO programming, this phenomenon of the concert stage -- a deaf percussionist who has made percussion a solo instrument in serious music -- always has something musically new to say, bringing a work specially commissioned for her mega-talent. This concert, no exception to her regular visits, had the packed-out audience -- at least metaphorically speaking --both gasping for breath and bopping in the aisles during Greek composer Christos Hatzis' sprawling, deeply emotional Tongues of Fire for Percussion and Orchestra. The work's title sets its moment and concern: the flames that descended upon the Apostles on Pentecost, but rather than being celebratory, the work explores anguish and crisis, and in an intense second movement inner tranquility. That proves unsustainable but goes deep, as large-scale effects give way to almost unbearable lyrical intensity. Dame Evelyn was, as ever, on the top of her game, from the rapid-fire explosions of sound of primal character to coaxing out the infinitely small nuances of the vibraphone to goose-bump raising effect. Visceral and cerebral by turns, the work set up almost relentless challenges for soloist and orchestra. A self-conscious tour de force, Hatzis' composition could have been mere gimmickry but turned out to be profoundly moving both in its inventiveness and ideas. Maesto Tovey urged out a committed and thrilling reading of this piece not for the faint-of-heart, with the VSO delivering every bit as impassioned a performance as that delivered by its soloist-phenomenon. J. H. Stape, REVIEWVANCOUVER.COM (Canada).

Glennie has played in Calgary and never fails to impress. Not only she is gifted technically, but her playing is exceptionally musical, encompassing the most amazing nuances of tone and rhythm. She had a full workout in the solo part of the concerto, a virtuoso work in four titled movements that together make up a reflection on the idea of Pentecost, especially the sense of turbulence that surrounded the period just before Christ ascended to heavens. The music itself is unfailingly colourful in an idiom that broadly speaking might be called "neo-tonal". More specifically, the harmonic palate and melodic style resembled a cross between Anton Bruckner and Andrew Lloyd-Webber, the short, fragmentary melodies having a churchy sound, but presented with all the subtlety and refinement associated with Phantom of the Opera and other works of that ilk. The immediacy of the effect was unmistakable, especially given the compelling performance by Glennie, and there was much to admire in the clever handling of mixed rhythms, largely assigned to the orchestra. As a virtuoso vehicle for Glennie or another virtuoso percussionist, the work is likely to have many performances. Hatzis was on hand for the performance, graciously acknowledging the obvious effort that has gone into the preparation and delivery of the work. Kenneth DeLong, THE CALGARY HERALD (Canada), May 31, 2008.

Well it has been a week since Maestro Minczuk and the CPO performed ‘Tongues of Fire’ with Evelyn Glennie and the experience has taken on a dreamlike quality in my memory.  I seem to recall chatting with you briefly before the performance.  You described Ms. Glennie as a ‘force of nature’ and those words certainly proved apt.  When she took to the stage I did feel like I was in the presence of an elemental force of nature or of a goddess.  Shivers started going up and down my spine when Ms. Glennie ignited her first session on the drums and they were to visit me a number of times again during the performance.  The word performance hardly does justice to what I remember experiencing.  It was more of a manifestation of numinous power through the conjunction of Ms. Glennie, the CPO, and your music, and we were privileged to witness it.  I was quite astonished and taken by the variety, breadth, and complexity of ‘Tongues of Fire’. I regret not initially buying my tickets for the Friday performance so that I could have come back again for Saturday’s.  I need to hear the work a few more times in order to really get it.  Perhaps some day it will be on 
disc. J. D., Calgary (Canada)

I just wanted you to know how much I enjoyed the performance of your important new work Tongues of Fire. My daughter and I were near the front of the hall on May 24 and saw you during the intermission....Thank you for this magnificent work. Your music came at a time in my life when I needed to hear every note. J. W., Oregon (USA)

I just wanted to send you an email to say how blessed my wife and I were by the opportunity to attend this concert with the CPO last night. We especially appreciated the pre-concert chat between you and Michael Hope which was educational and uplifting.  I am an old rock and roll lover so this whole classical thing is a learning experience for me. (My wife, on the other hand, plays double bass and was raised with the classics, and still loves hearing the orchestra).  I have just started taking piano lessons (at age 53!) and it has already helped me appreciate the music even more.  Thank you for coming to Calgary to attend this concert and be part of a glorious evening! P. E. C. Calgary (Canada)

 


 

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