Ping! Pong! The Concert’s On.
Posted February 19, 2018 5:42 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — On a recent Sunday afternoon, the table tennis club Spin was full of New Yorkers hiding from the rain. Casual players fooling around and sipping drinks had no idea that, on the other side of a nearby curtain, two Olympic-level athletes were practicing for their New York Philharmonic debut.
Michael Landers and Ariel Hsing, table tennis champions in their early 20s, are featured as the Ping-Pong-playing soloists in Andy Akiho’s energetic concerto “Ricochet,” which will have its American premiere on Tuesday as part of the Philharmonic’s Lunar New Year gala. And yes, this is the first time a Ping-Pong table has been onstage at David Geffen Hall.
As staged in New York, the concerto will showcase two soloists — a violinist, Elizabeth Zeltser of the Philharmonic, and a percussionist, David Cossin — at the front of the stage. The Ping-Pong players are elevated at the back, like opera singers performing above an orchestra pit.
Separating the athlete-soloists from the rest of the ensemble is a tall net that protects the musicians (and the audience) from wayward balls. Not that there should be so many of those: The table-tennis parts, which sometimes involve playing with objects like wineglasses and drums in lieu of paddles, require no less skill than the ones for the traditional instruments. Summer-camp amateurs need not apply.
The Ping-Pong may seem like a gimmick, but there is meaning to be found in “Ricochet” — especially as it will appear in a program of music from China, which has long been home to the world’s greatest table tennis players. The piece conjures echoes of 1970s “Ping-Pong diplomacy,” with the violin part serving as an intermediary between the percussive soloists and the orchestra.
But Akiho, an imaginative composer and percussionist known for playing the steel pan and found instruments, said his concerto shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
“I’m not really a political kind of person,” he said. “This is bringing two cultures together, and bringing music and sports together for a nice conversation. But I also just want to create a good experience.”
Akiho was quick to add that he is not a Ping-Pong player himself. At a rehearsal Saturday, Hsing was running late, so Akiho filled in. He had more laughs than successful shots.
But it was at Spin, the Manhattan Ping-Pong club, where he first thought of writing “Ricochet.” Zeltser said she was with him there in 2012, after one of the Philharmonic’s Contact! new-music concerts that included Akiho’s “Oscillate.” Their conversation turned to music and, eventually Jean-Jacques Cesbron, Akiho’s manager who oversaw the development of “Ricochet,” suggested that Akiho write a concerto inspired by percussive rhythms of the Ping-Pong games around them.
“Andy has an incredible ear,” Zeltser said. “He’s always registering sound and using it in his music.”
In Chinatown, where he lives, Akiho frequents shops with a tuning app on his phone and chopsticks, experimenting with the pitches of ceramic bowls and other ordinary objects.
“I’m more excited by pieces where you have to find instruments,” he said. “Ricochet” came together after a series of workshops with Cossin, a veteran of the Bang on a Can All-Stars ensemble, to test the sounds of found materials. (Akiho said he likes tones “that are super articulate, with a long resonance and a sharp attack.”) The finished score contains an elaborate inventory and diagrams detailing what goes where, including liquor bottles, temple bowls and resonant metal pipes. The Ping-Pong players also make percussive sounds by dribbling the ball with a hand drum and, in the finale, dumping a container of balls on the table.
“It just gradually came together,” Cossin said. “At one point, we decided I should even play the Ping-Pong table as an instrument.”
The concept attracted early fans, including Chinese conductor Long Yu, who led the piece’s premiere in Shanghai in 2015 and will conduct the Philharmonic concert on Tuesday.
“I’m interested in any crazy, creative idea beyond normal imagination,” he said. “Classical music needs more like this.” Playing Ping-Pong with unconventional objects isn’t new or especially challenging for Landers and Hsing, who said they have joked around in the past with even a small cellphone as an improvised paddle. Landers said that when he was 11, someone beat him playing with a Dr. Seuss book.
For them, the difficulty is in playing with the rhythmic precision of the other musicians. In one moment, Landers lobs the ball high into the air. Once it bounces on Hsing’s side, she hits it powerfully into a bass drum on the table. Each sound — the ball hitting the paddles, table and drum — must align with sforzando bursts from the orchestra.
“When I play table tennis, I’m trying to win, no matter how I look in the process, and I try to never think,” Hsing said. “So much of the concerto is appearance, and knowing when to start and stop. You’re always thinking.”
In rehearsals, Landers bobbed his head and counted to himself during rests. This wasn’t new to him: He is a veteran musician with perfect pitch, a pianist and bassoonist who performed at Carnegie Hall in high school. But Hsing said she hadn’t really played music since she dropped the clarinet after middle school.
Considering how competing in table tennis championships since she was 7 somehow led to being onstage with the New York Philharmonic, she said, “I don’t think I ever would have imagined this.”
New York Philharmonic
Tuesday at David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center; 212-875-5656, nyphil.org.