A good-sized audience was on hand September 27 in Christ Methodist Church, Greensboro, for the opening concert of the Music for a Great Space series. Musicians from the Eastern Music Festival presented an unusually diverse chamber music program involving percussion, strings, woodwinds and piano. Earlier in the day, the same musicians had given two abridged percussion concerts for nearly 1,100 elementary students, ranging from kindergarten to fifth grade. Educational outreach is an important facet of MGS, contributing to the building of tomorrow’s audience.

A loud bang opened the concert; the stage was filled with marimbas, xylophones, timpani, bass, and snare drums for the Preludio for Percussion by Elliot Del Borgo (b.1938). It ranged from deep bass drumming to a delicate episode with wind chimes and similar fragile sounds. The sharp percussive sound of the xylophone, with its hard beaters, contrasted with the mellow sound of the marimbas. The next two pieces featured EMF percussionist and virtuoso marimbist Christopher Norton, currently professor of music at Belmont College in Nashville, Tennessee. These were played on a fine marimba, described in Grove I as a “fully resonated orchestral xylophone developed from Latin American models.” Mexican Danse No. 2 , by Ithaca College-based Gordon Stout (b.1952), contrasted a slow lyrical section with a faster section. Norton’s own transcription of the Gavotte en Rondeau from Bach’s Partita No. 3, in E, featured a familiar melody treated with a wide variety of dynamics and, on this occasion, nicely phrased. Norton said that the piece was written for violin and lute but must have misspoken, since it was based on the Third Partita for Solo Violin .

More percussion was on tap after intermission. Norton said that Joseph Green and his brother George were active in the early 20th century, having made many recordings and radio broadcasts. A Google search brought up cylinders and numerous other recordings made by the Green Brothers Novelty or Marimba Orchestras, arrangements of popular music of the day. The program listed Xylophonia as being arranged by Bob Beeker, but an online search indicated that one prepared by William L. Cahn was more likely. The stage was set up with Norton playing a bright xylophone in the center, flanked by the players of two resonant marimbas. The music had the atmosphere of old-time circus organs and calliopes, with fast and slow playful music influenced by Ragtime. The marimba has never been my favorite instrument, and several other concerts that featured it felt like harsh penitence. This composer and performer made the strongest case for the instrument in the solo work, November Evening . He said that it was jazz-influenced, with “two themes, the harmonics and chords of which were the basis for variations with a chorale in the middle with an ending like a jazz improvisation.” There was a wide range in dynamics and a rich choice of full-toned color.

Unusual fare for more traditional chamber music instruments came at the ends of both halves of the concert. Cellist Paige Riggs, most recently a faculty member of the University of Virginia and Principal Cello of the Charlottesville Symphony, played a real rarity, Gaspar Cassadó’s Suite per violoncello solo (1907). The Catalonian composer gave his first recital at age nine and was heard by Casals, who began teaching him in Paris in 1910. Grove I reports that “as a composer (he) was influenced by Falla and Ravel.” This work is an astonishing achievement for a ten-year-old composer! The opening and closing movements have interesting scoring that exploit all the technical tricks in a cellist’s armory – high harmonics, pizzicatos, a rich variety of bowings and fingering finesse. The middle movement, Sardana, is based on the national dance of Catalonia, which Grove I describes as “an elegant and solemnly executed circle-dance performed to the music of the ‘colba,’ traditionally a one-handed flute and drum with shawms. Stylistically the music resembles that of Provence rather than other Spanish music.” It opens with very high pinched-sounding notes and features an irregular rhythm. A hint of a hurdy-gurdy is evoked, and there is an odd “sour” sound quality to the movement that I don’t believe was an intonation problem but was instead the intent of the composer. Cellists ought to consider adding this to the Bach and Kodály suites in their repertories.

Riggs was joined next by clarinetist Kelly Burke and pianist James Giles for Robert Muczynski’s Fantasy Trio , Op. 26 (1969). According to the American Grove , the Chicago composer (b.1929) was “influenced by Bartók, Piston and Barber (with a style that) is earnest, economical, and unostentatious, characterized by spare, neo-classical textures, a gently restrained lyricism, and, in fast movements, strongly accented, irregular meters, which create a vigorous rhythmic drive.” Giles played with the piano lid fully up but balanced expertly with his colleagues. The fast-driving piano part contrasted with wide-ranging clarinet sound and cello pizzicatos. A slow, sad cello phrase opened the second movement against a droning piano figure and later gave way to a prominent slow melody for the clarinet. The last movement featured a highly chromatic passage for the clarinet, played in its lowest range, cello pizzicatos, and a rapid piano figure dominated by a driving rhythm.

The concert ended with Giles and Burke in a mellow and unsentimental performance of Brahms’ Sonata in E-flat, Op. 120, No. 2. Balance, dynamics and phrasing were ideal. It was delightful just to sit back and bask in the warm autumnal glow of vintage Brahms.

In addition to three concerts featuring Christ Church’s world class C.B. Fisk mechanical-action organ, highlights of the rest of the Music in a Great Space series are William Bolcom and Joan Morris in a popular song program (on November 22) and the baroque music group Red Priest (on April 4, 2003). See our series tab for details.