The Arts NOW series curated by composer Rodney Waschka II of the NC State University Music Department can be counted on for presenting unusual and interesting performers and composers, and the concert by marimbist Juan Álamo was no exception. Álamo is a recent arrival for the music faculty at UNC Chapel Hill, where he directs the Percussion Ensemble. The evening began with a composition by Álamo, “Remembrance,” in which he immediately impressed with a masterful four-mallet technique. The work was modal and rhapsodic, with enough variety to sustain a relatively long arc. Next up was “Marimba d’Amore” by Keiko Abe, an evocation of love which includes the well-known chanson “Plaisir d’amour.”

Providing contrast between the three sets of solo marimba works were two “tape” works – that is, pre-recorded electroacoustic compositions. The first was the long and relatively tranquil Etude (2002), based on Latin chant, by Pablo Furman, an Argentine now working at San Jose State in California, and a name that was new to me. Considerably different in affect was “Left to His Own Devices” (1996) by Eric Chasalow, with the title taken from an uncompleted work by Milton Babbitt. The piece marked Babbitt’s 80th birthday and makes use of Babbitt’s recorded voice among its materials. The whole effect was both modern and satirical, and reminiscent in some ways of Frank Zappa’s explorations from the late sixties.

The second marimba set began with the Nocturne No. 2 by Kit Mills, formerly of North Carolina, and now residing in the Northwest. The work is relatively traditional in language, triadic, with regular arpeggios. It was followed by “Samba para eschuchar tu silencio” by Argentinian composer Guillo Espel with sonorities that were relatively jazzy in contrast to what had gone before. The same was true for “I Will See You Again,” written by Álamo in memory of his late brother-in-law. (Although the evening’s program did not include jazz standards or improvisation, Álamo’s background includes a minor in jazz during his studies at the University of North Texas).

The evening closed with “Chameleon” by French percussionist Eric Sammut and an evocation by Álamo of 19th century salon music from his native Puerto Rico (imagine an elaborate social dance accompanied by piano), his “Estampas Borincanas.”

Álamo’s concentration and musicality cast a spell over the young audience during the predominantly lyrical works (no hint of dodecaphonics or atonality here), and he was a charming presence in talking about the works he was presenting. A lovely and memorable evening.

The next Arts NOW concert will be October 15 – for information, click here. Other events in this series are in our calendar.