On a summer afternoon in Central Park last year, Dartmouth percussion instructor Douglas Perkins and five other percussionists delivered a revolutionary rendition of Greek composer Iannis Xenakis’ “Persephassa.” Praised by critics and spectators alike, the performance which took place on Central Park Lake in the Park was recently named one of the top 10 classical music events in 2010 by New York Magazine.
The performance was part of the fourth annual Make Music New York festival, a one-day event in which over 1,000 public spaces across New York City’s five boroughs are transformed into venues for free concerts. According to the festival’s website, the event is always held on June 21 the longest day of the year.
“It was an event that took on a life of its own,” Perkins said in an interview with The Dartmouth.
When the director of Make Music New York approached him about the project, Perkins admitted that he was skeptical.
“It sounded ridiculous, and we weren’t even sure if we should really go forward with it,” Perkins explained. “But I never say no to anything.”
When the Stavros Niarchos Foundation agreed to partially fund the project, the Central Park performance began to seem more feasible, Perkins said.
“It kind of felt like Extreme Home Makeover,” he said. “We had a small amount of time and a small army of people. But we also had excellent, selfless and tireless volunteers who were amazing. Without them, we wouldn’t have made it out there.”
According to Perkins, several technological issues arose during the execution of the project. Perkins and his volunteers, including Dartmouth percussion students Si Jie Loo ’12 and Hyoung Yoon ’10, had to figure out how to put a floating generator into the lake and how to transmit signals from the lake to the shore. Although the volunteers worked all day to set up for the performance that only lasted 30 minutes, it was worth the “sweat and sunburn,” Loo wrote in an e-mail to The Dartmouth.
In addition to this sense of gratification, Perkins said he was able to find humor in the situation.
“It was hilarious because I went to conservatory to learn how to play nice concerts, and now I’m talking to engineers about how to float performers on Central Park Lake,” Perkins said.
The project had to be cleared with Central Park Conservancy, an organization that works to preserve the park and its wildlife. During the performance, the musicians had to use quick tracks headphones that played tiny metronomic clicks into their ears in order to stay together rhythmically.
Despite these challenges, the performance was a rousing success.
“When we were done, it sounded like fireworks,” Perkins said. “There was so much clapping. We lit a different kind of fire for audiences.”
Not only did the performance make New York Magazine’s top 10 list, it was also described by the New York Times as “a high point” of Make Music New York and was listed in Time Out New York’s “Best of 2010″ in the Classical and Opera category.
“It feels really great to have received these accolades,” Perkins said. “We got really lucky.”
Perkins was not always interested in large-scale modern classical music performances. As a child, he played a drum set and wanted to be a rock musician. He later met a timpanist and decided to pursue an orchestral career. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, a master’s degree and an artist’s diploma from Yale University and a doctorate from Stony Brook University.
Perkins first became interested in performing classical music on a grand scale in graduate school, he said. He added that he admires large concerts for their ability to “bring people together.”
“A band of musicians from around the country comes together just for the love of it,” Perkins explained.
At Dartmouth, Perkins urges his students to pursue whatever genre of music interests them the most.
“If you looked at all of my students, they would all have different interests,” he said. “If they have a heavy interest in one type of music, I encourage that.”
Yet Perkins said he also exposes his students to many different kinds of music he encourages rock muscians to listen to classical music, for example.
“Doug is an exciting, energetic, catalytic presence here at Dartmouth,” music professor Larry Polansky said. “He’s one of those rare people that make things happen that shouldn’t, by all rights, happen. I treasure him as a musical colleague.”
While he is committed to the Hanover area, Perkins’ influence extends beyond the Upper Valley. He founded the group So Percussion, a New York-based percussion ensemble that performs around the world, collaborating with groups such as the International Contemporary Ensemble, Alarm Will Sound and eighth blackbird.
“I’m always looking for bigger and bigger projects,” Perkins said.
He already has several large concerts slated for 2011 in New York.
In February, he and 72 other percussionists will perform a piece by John Luther Adams at the Park Avenue Armory.
On June 21, he will perform in a group of 100 percussionists at Morningside Park.
“Percussion is the coolest thing because it’s been around for so long, and it’s a part of so many people’s language,” Perkins said. “It’s really a lifetime of learning. And all of this from percussionists who like to hit funny things.”