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It’s a percussionist’s dream come true — and an audience treat as well.

Joseph Schwantner’s Percussion Concerto stretches the boundaries of percussion way beyond banging a drum.

Special guest percussionist Lynn Vartan returns to Helena to perform this dynamic, action-packed work with the Helena Symphony Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Helena Civic Center.

Among the many instruments Vartan will play Saturday night are the shekere, Japanese wind chimes, anvil and Alpine herd bells in addition to the more conventional bass drum, marimba and bongos.

She’ll also play the water gong — a midsize gong that she strikes and then dips into a container of water, making the pitch bend.

The concerto “maximizes all the different color possibilities” of percussion,” said Vartan, who directs the percussion program at Southern Utah University in Cedar City.

An advocate for diversity in music and a prolific soloist, she’s been twice nominated for a Grammy for Best Classical Album of the Year.

She last appeared in Helena in November 2009 as a guest percussionist performing Rosauro’s Marimba Concerto.

Saturday night will make for a high-energy, athletic performance with Vartan on the move — sometimes upstage to join her fellow percussionists and at other times down to the front near the audience.

“I get to move around and interact with the orchestra more,” she said.

The whole percussion section gets into the act: “It’s really fun for the orchestra.”

Vartan compares the piece to an adventure film score: “It’s a very photographically panoramic score. It’s very cinematic – like an adventure. It’s very exciting.”

One of the dramatic parts includes the third movement, when the African shekere, a beaded gourd-like instrument, makes sounds like an animal running through the forest.

“It’s always exciting to play a work like this,” she added. “It’s so colorful. The music speaks for itself.”

“She creates an orchestra out of percussion instruments,” said Music Director Allan R. Scott. “The Percussion Concerto has some of the most accessible, thrilling, unique, dramatic colors.”

There’s also a great improvisational part, where Vartan “goes five to six minutes creating a tapestry of sound. It’s so cool. I’m excited to see how it turns out. Audiences love the work. It appeals to all ages.”

One of the most performed works of the last decade, it was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for its 150th anniversary in 1995.

There’s always a response of shock and awe from the audience, said Scott, when they hear what all the instruments can do.

And that’s just the first half of the concert. “Then there’s the Bartok,” said Scott. The orchestra will perform his Concerto for Orchestra, a world-renowned piece that allows the whole orchestra to show its chops.

It is his most popular work and his greatest masterpiece, Scott said.

“The Bartok piece is the opportunity for the Helena Symphony to really, really play,” Scott said. “It is designed to treat individual instruments and groups of instruments as soloists. Audiences love it. It has its thrilling moments and wonderfully intimate moments.”

Bartok is particularly known and loved for capturing the sounds and rhythms of the folk music from his native Hungary.

It’s a big conducting piece, added Scott, who won the North American finals in the 1995 Besan Competition conducting the work. Bartok’s musical language is very demanding, he explained. It’s known for its lopsided rhythms and frequent meter changes.

The Bartok work is considered one of the most influential classical music works of the 20th Century, he said. “The Concerto for Orchestra changed the way people wrote concertos. He was making all the orchestral members soloists in a powerful way. He may not have realized he was changing the course of music. It’s one of the most exciting pieces, and musicians want to play it.”

Tickets for the concert are $10 to $50 and are available at 442-1860, or or visit the Symphony Box Office, 48 Hibbard Way, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. weekdays. Student discounts are available. Season subscriptions are also offered. Tickets will also be sold at the Civic Center door Saturday night.

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