Percussion Ensemble Review Print

Apollo's Chastening: UNCG Percussion Ensemble's Spring Concert

April 22, 2003 - Greensboro, NC:

Late in the month I volunteered to review two potentially interesting Triad concerts, the spring concert of the UNCG Contemporary Chamber Players and a vocal recital at the School of the Arts featuring soprano Marilyn Taylor with composer Kenneth Frazelle as her pianist. On April 22, I arrived at the UNCG School of Music with little time to spare. I was surprised that the concert had been shifted from the Organ Room to the larger Recital Hall. I wasn't dismayed by the crowded stage but, expecting to see (and hear) an all-Stookey retrospective, I was surprised to see no known composers in the printed program. I should add that some twenty years ago I had suffered through the unimaginative "noodlings" of two composers for marimba and vibraphone, respectively, leading to my strong aversion to those instruments; on stage in Greensboro were no less than six of that family. I had mixed concert dates and the god Apollo was tempering this critic with an immersion in his instrumental nightmare. We Calvinists don't take well to full dunking in anything!

The concert featured the some twenty members of the UNCG Percussion Ensemble under the direction of Cort McClaren. During the program, the stage players were changed three times. The ensemble has commissioned and premiered over 25 new works and has made several recordings. The musicians range from freshman to doctoral candidates. McClaren's selection of compositions provided an overview of literature wholly unknown to me.

Dread disappeared while listening to the unexpectedly subtle dynamics and color of Thomas Gauger's "Portico" (1983). This features six marimbas, vibraphones and xylophones as well as sets of tubular bells, timpani, snare drums, gongs, and rattles. It is dominated by a mellow repetitive figure. After beginning at a very hushed level it builds louder, with snare drums. A portion reminded me of the sound of a gamelan orchestra. McClaren said that this work was seminal in that it established the combination of instruments that form a percussion orchestra.

David J. Long's "Mystic Prelude" (2002) begins gently, with two marimbas, chimes and tubular bells, and then the dynamics increase as more instruments join in. Parts of it reminded me of "The Great Gate of Kiev," in Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.

For the world premiere of Nathan Daughtrey's "Unleash the Fury" (2003), a new set of players took the stage, without a conductor. Four members of the vibraphone family with different configurations were used. There was a beautiful, rich bass register, and there were much more complex rhythms. A great variety of mallets were used, and very quiet playing was contrasted with loud. I thought one melody seemed vaguely Russian. Based on what I had expected from the title, this was not furious, after all, but it was enjoyable.

Greater familiarity with Chopin's E Minor Prelude would have added to my enjoyment of Michael Hennigan's "Duo Chopinesque" (1986). McClaren said that after playing a portion of the prelude straight, snippets would disintegrate into chaos and that "just when you think it will end - it doesn't."

The highlight of the concert was Philip Parker's Five Pieces for Clarinet and Percussion Orchestra (1990). Pianist Daughtrey and harpist Bonnie Bach joined clarinet soloist Kelly Burke on stage. The opening movement features wide-ranging dynamics and color for the soloist, with fast runs and brilliantly trilled high notes. The second movement, slow and somber, features piano and tubular bells, while a showy clarinet part is contrasted with some unusual scoring for harp. The driving rhythm of the third movement, in which the piano is used as a true percussion instrument, reminded me of Bartók, and some of the scoring for the dazzling clarinet part hinted at klezmer style.

When the thought-provoking formal concert ended, everyone was invited to join a steel drum band, in the atrium. I could have done without the amplified guitar, and sometimes the rock-band-style drums and bongos were too loud, but the clear melodic sound of the steel drums was enjoyable. Phil Hawkins' "Calypso Jam" could have accompanied any West Indies scene. Graduating doctorial candidate Pete Zambito was represented by two works: he arranged the Pete Seeger version of Jose Fernandez Diaz's "Guantanamera" for steel drums, and he took the lead in the world premiere of his own piece, "It's Not Carmen , So Save It." Clearly, he shares Satie's taste for titles.

For some inkling of the other concert that I managed to miss, see CVNC' s CD Archives for colleague Marvin Ward's review of Marilyn Taylor's marvelous CD Return: Art Songs From Carolina (Albany Troy 627). Better yet, order a copy - you won't regret it!