Glennie creates fresh vibes

She aims to revitalize classical music around the world with energetic percussion

It's unavoidable to talk about Evelyn Glennie, the only full-time solo percussionist on the planet and a superstar of classical music, without mentioning that she's deaf.

So let's get a few misperceptions out of the way first: Although countless articles have focused on Ms. Glennie's hearing, she doesn't view her deafness as a hindrance or a limitation to her virtuosic musicianship. If anything, she says that focusing on it distracts people from her work.

Music has a spiritual aspect that transcends the physical senses, she says.

"Music is about communication ... it isn't just something that maybe physically sounds good or orally sounds interesting; it's something far, far deeper than that," she says on the phone from her native city of Aberdeen, Scotland, listening with the aid of a translator.

There's an overlooked mental aspect to hearing, according to an essay by Glennie's husband posted on her website, The Scottish percussionist can hear sounds faintly, but she listens mainly by detecting the pitches of vibrations on different parts of her body and then translating them into sound.

Glennie's vibes will be felt by many listeners tonight and tomorrow night when she joins conductor Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra at New York's Carnegie Hall, where they will perform premieres by Chen Yi, Stewart Wallace, George Tsontakis, and Joan Tower.

The chatty Glennie, who speaks in a Scottish accent that often lilts with delight, recalls how, years ago, Mr. Slatkin was approached to perform a concerto for percussion with her. The piece, "Veni, Veni Emmanuel," by James McMillan, is one of more than 120 pieces that have been written specifically for her by various composers.

"He was hesitant about the piece; he didn't really know me; he was hesitant about percussion. Everything was sort of new to him, and he just thought, 'Hmmm, not too sure about this,' " she says of Slatkin's initial reaction. But the collaboration changed his perspective completely. The duo have since recorded together and have performed the piece around the world.

"He's got the percussion bug," Glennie says, giggling. "He's done an awful lot for percussion. He embraced it, seeing that there was huge potential there."

Glennie is a missionary of sorts, spending most months of the year converting orchestras across the world to the possibilities of percussion. Her gospel has been gathering adherents - it's been preached from the podiums of conductors like Seiji Ozawa, Jahja Ling, Georg Solti, and Mstislav Rostropovich.

With a higher-than-average turnover of over-stamped passports, it's no surprise that Glennie now stores drums across the world because they're too unwieldy to be lugging out of baggage-claim areas every couple of days. Her travels allow her learning opportunities, too.

"Once you're in a particular country, and you're surrounded by musicians who are so adept at traditional music, you suddenly realize how much there is to explore and digest and learn and experience," she says. "And this is all something you cannot do by reading a book about it or by studying with a teacher over here. You have really got to be in that particular country."

When she's back in Britain, where she was made an Officer of the British Empire by the queen in 1993, Glennie admits to foraging through shelves of toys in her local pet store, or in children's shops, for new instruments.

"I walk into a kids' store, and it's amazing, the types of instruments - little squeaky things, rattling things, spinning tops...," she enthuses.

Glennie isn't averse to trying out exhaust pipes from cars for their percussive potential or creating instruments out of plastic tubes. On stage, the percussionist dashes barefoot from one instrument to another.

Live performances are vital to classical music's future, she says.

"Concerts have to be seen as a real event for which the aim is to try and feed everybody," Glennie says, with evident passion. "And for new [listeners], it needs to be an experience so that hopefully they will be curious enough to perhaps return one day, or bring a friend along."

Her prescription for classical concerts? Scrap the predictability. Introduce classy, but appropriate, lighting. Have players and the conductor give pre- and post-concert talks to provide audiences an insight into their craft.

Oh, and one more thing: No more warming up onstage beforehand. You wouldn't go to a play where the actors were out reciting their lines prior to the curtain, she says.

When she isn't playing the bagpipes, Glennie can be found exploring new fusions of musical forms. She has worked with popular singer Björk ("her voice is so instrumental that it could really cope in any [musical] situation") and, more recently, on an upcoming CD of Bach interpretations by banjo player Béla Fleck.

But more pieces still need to be written, she says.

"I think in the next hundred years we will begin to have a body of repertoire that is standard," she says of percussion. "This is a lifelong aim for me."

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