From piano to tin can, the room was set-up as a world of percussion instruments that drew my immediate attention. And during the subsequent 90 minutes, a fabulous trio would transport us on an astonishing musical journey. Percussion Group Cincinnati performed works by John Luther Adams (b.1953), Alonzo Alexander*, Guo Wen-jing (b.1956), Colin McPhee (1900-64), John Cage (1912-92), and arrangements by the ensemble. As part of the Talking Music Series, the event took place in the Rehearsal Hall (Rm. 107) of Hill Hall.

Percussion Group Cincinnati (PGC), ensemble-in-residence at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, has performed in the U.S. and around the world. Established in 1979, they are elite members of the top tier in their field. They are dedicated to teaching, playing, and preserving music by living composers and composers from the 20th century. Notably, PGC has made a set of recordings of John Cage’s music on Mode Records, and they have produced CDs with their own record label, ars moderno. PGC members are Allen Otte, James Culley, and Russell (a.k.a.) Rusty Burge.

The featured works were by American composers living here and abroad (or out of the lower 48) and Chinese composer Guo Wen-jing. Allen Otte was the spokesperson for the group; he succinctly introduced each of the compositions, an intimate way to learn and hear first-hand, the works of fine composers who are sometimes overlooked or yet to be discovered.

John Luther Adams’ “Drums of Winter” (1993) was inspired by the beauty of the land and native people in Alaska. A spell-binding piece with ferocious energy, it is like a call to the wild. It is composed with alternating sections of polyrhythm and rhythmic unity, each requiring nerves of steel. PGC played with amazing precision.

The Canadian musicologist, Colin McPhee (1900-64) studied and transcribed music for gamelan orchestra while living in Bali. Balinese Ceremonial Music (1936) was originally transcribed for two pianos. To create a more authentic sound, however, PGC performed with piano, vibraphone, and marimba. To my “western” ears, the piece was enchanting. But when McPhee heard the music performed with microtonal tunings, and played by native musicians on traditional instruments, the music must have seemed exotic.

Taking us to China, PGC played a section from Drama (1996) by Guo Wen-jing (b.1956). Like many of his contemporaries, Guo was inspired by music from the countryside and the mountains. The three players remained seated with an assembly of cymbal-like instruments of different sizes and with varying timbral effects. Between segments, they vocalized in Chinese. Their performance was stunning.

Authorities on the percussion music of John Cage, PGC performed two of his works: “Credo in Us” (1942) and “Living Room Music” (1940). “Credo” was made to be paired with Merce Cunningham’s choreography, and it was first performed at Bennington College on August 1 of that year. Like-minded, the two artists worked separately, with time limit the only rule. I imagined the lithe, but muscular performer crossing the floor. “Living Room Music,” is dedicated to his then-wife, Xenia. Cage’s instructions call for household objects to be used as props/instruments. (PGC used a telephone book, a lighter and playing cards). Overtly funny, it is written in four sections; the second incorporates text by Gertrude Stein. The players received a hearty applause.

Percussion Group Cincinnati also offered us a taste of African music with Alonzo Alexander’s Mbira Music Book 1 (1986), and they closed with a beautiful arrangement, Chilean Songs played on marimba.

The Talking Music Series continues with a concert on Friday, April 4, as part of the William S. Newman Artist Series: Four UNC Composers. The concert takes place in Hill Hall at 8:00 p.m. For details, click here.

*With thanks to composer Peter Ware, “Pianist Alonso Alexander is a [d]octoral candidate in composition at CCM and a specialist in the performance of contemporary music. He has numerous premieres to his credit and has become an irreplaceable participant in the Cincinnati music scene.”