The University of North Carolina School of the Arts percussion ensemble gave us a warm welcome to their 2022 Spring concert. Under direction of John Beck, the Principal Percussionist of the Winston-Salem Symphony, the ensemble performed a wide range of styles, including both new and old works. Located in the beautiful Watson Hall with guest artists Jodi Burns and Robin “Bountourabi” Leftwich, it was an evening of unique music from all walks of life.

The night began with a piece from Mykhailo Verbytsky, “Shche me vmeria Ukrainy” arranged by Arsen Buchynsky. It means “Ukraine has not perished” and is the basis of the Ukraine National Anthem. The simultaneous rolls on the mallet instruments gave a softer opening than one might expect from a percussion ensemble and almost felt more classical in nature. This beautiful melodic piece was the perfect opener for the concert. “Gymel” by William Duckworth was a personal favorite from the night. It began as a free movement piece in which the musicians picked a point on the score to play at their own pace. Each person’s unique melody interacted with the other parts in an interesting and contrasting way that created a tension and stillness that was felt throughout the crowd. It was finally released as the ensemble ended in a unison rhythm. This piece was then juxtaposed by “Music for Pieces of Wood” by Steve Reich. As the name suggests, the instrumentation for this piece consisted of different wooden claves or blocks. This work in particular required excellent counting and awareness of the ensemble as they passed around the familiar motif.

Jodi Burns took to the stage for a three-part work from “Energy in All Directions” by Kenneth Frazelle, which highlighted her buttery tone that melted into the ears of the audience. This work was based on many different art forms, such as painting, music, furniture, poetry, and so much more. I’ve never heard anything quite like this, but it had me on the edge of my seat. The second movement in particular was very moving. Titled “Phantom Limb,” this song conveyed the feelings one may feel when experiencing phantom limb pain. The powerful and soaring vocals from Burns echoed through the hall as she alternated between “P” and “B” sounds. The use of bowed marimba created a warm, yet eerie atmosphere that brought the song to a close.

The second half of the show presented completely different styles of music, beginning with “Rudimental Clave” by John Wooton that showcased graduate student Dante Thomas. It utilized a marching snare drum that was reminiscent of Thomas’s days in marching band; he was even able to show us a few stick tricks as well. It incorporated a variety of instruments, such as timbale, congas, and tim-tam-tom which added a nice Latin groove to the piece. “Fusão árabe” by Adam Snow and Justin Bunting came next. It is Portuguese for “Arab Fusion” and came out of a mutual drive to create music that combined Arabic and Brazilian instruments and rhythms. Beck joined in on this piece, picking up a Brazilian bass drum with Thomas on congas and kick bass. This piece used heavy syncopation and often fell “out of the pocket” or “off-beat.” It had the crowd tapping their toes and bobbing their heads to this masterful mashup.

The last few movements were led by Leftwich, a djembe expert. She has been a student of West African art and culture for over twenty-five years, frequently traveling to West Africa where she has gained a deeper and authentic understanding of the use of the djembe in traditions and ceremonies. She led the ensemble through two traditional West African djembe pieces while also allowing solos from each performer to showcase their hard work. This was a perfect note to end the night, as it was an immersive experience, not only for the performers, but for the audience as well.