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The rest of the campus had gone into hibernation for the “Spring Holiday” (the observance “formerly known as” Good Friday), with the libraries closed, but the UNC Greensboro School of Music was still hard at work, with a first-rate concert by its Percussion Ensemble (director, Dr. Kristopher S. Keeton). UNCG has quite probably the best music program in the state, with beautiful facilities (this was the first concert I attended in the Recital Hall, which can boast lovely lines and fine acoustics), tuned-in faculty and attentive students. The evening opened with two songs for the African percussion group, coached and led by Sandy Blocker, first a West African medley for Blocker and a trio, and then another number for which they were joined by another four drummers playing djembes. Exciting and loud! (and the sort of thing that children would love).
The program moved to the notated Western tradition of percussion with "Mudra," by Bob Becker (b. 1947), a work for solo tenor drum (a snare drum, with no snares) and keyboard percussion (marimba, vibes, and glockenspiel, the latter musician doubling on the big bass drum). This work (a staple of the percussion repertoire, which I reviewed at the Eastern Music Festival just last August) was rehearsed and directed by the student soloist, Kevin Estes, with flair and control. Beautifully done.
Next up was a humorous, theatrical piece by Mark Ford (1958-) for five soloists playing drum heads only (hence the title, "Head Talk"), performed from memory, with the musicians sitting on the floor. Enchanting and entertaining, and ending with a gesture which I won’t spoil by revealing here in print.
Director Keeton appeared from backstage to direct "Whispers," a work for somewhat larger ensemble by David Skidmore (b. 1962), and proved a winning presence in providing spoken program notes while the students reset the stage. As one might expect, the work started quietly and accumulated momentum, and its narrative arc (perhaps there was a plot in the composer’s mind?) was effective.
The following piece, the fourth movement ("Sky Ghost") from a piece titled The Invisible Proverb, by Russell Hartenberger (1944- ) was the only disappointment for the evening, not because of the performances or dedication of the students, which continued to be at a very high level, but because the work itself was pure kitsch, a rather dull melody subjected to tedious elaboration, including parallelisms in the harmony, and effects recalling hand-bell choirs. (I wouldn’t want to imagine sitting through the whole suite if this movement is representative of the rest….)
Thankfully the ensemble moved on to a properly noisy big-bang finale, "The Doomsday Machine" by Michael Burritt (b. 1962), which we were told was named for an episode from Star Trek, and which seems to have had its genesis in some commercial music for car repair, hence its expanded instrumentarium, which included metallic objects such as brake discs etc. An engaging and original work, and performed with verve. Congratulations to Keeton and crew, and plaudits to the large and discerning audience which attended.