As a lover of contemporary music, I am particularly enchanted by programs of percussion – one knows that the rhythmic aspect will come to the fore, and that the composers will not be able to fall back on familiar habits from the standard repertoire, since there IS no music from the revered dead for these combinations. Thus I arrived at the program by the Percussion Ensemble of the Eastern Music Festival (held in the cool and inviting Dana Auditorium of Guilford College, a historically Quaker institution, and the annual host of the Festival) already favorably disposed, and my expectations were richly rewarded. Under the direction of Eric Schweikert, the student performers presented a diverse and interesting program, performed at a high level.

The afternoon began with “Music for Pieces of Wood” by Steve Reich, with five players (each with two wood blocks) interweaving counter-rhythms. This ten-minute long piece demanded a high-level of concentration, since with no pitches, all the interest lies in the motion. It was very well-done, cleanly played, with swing.

“Mudra,” by Bob Becker, which was up next, had a broader palette of instruments, featuring a solo drum (snare, with snares disengaged, played by Paul Cassens). The name references Indian dance, but to these ears there was not much Indian spice evident. The writing was very effective, nonetheless, particularly the unison patterns between the soloist and Charles Rosmarin on the big bass drum.

The Marimba Quartet by Daniel Levitan, with four pitched instruments, moved in a more traditional direction musically, with the idiom being highly reminiscent of the lyrical jazz of Chick Corea, Gary Burton, or especially Keith Jarrett, with modal, almost diatonic harmonies and funky syncopations verging on gospel music. Simply beautiful!

The solo work by River Guerguerian, “Fifteen for Michael,” featured Sulaiman Ismail on hand percussion plus – either tambourine or conga, with punctuation from pedal bass-drum, or high-hat. The piece never quite took flight, though Ismail seemed more relaxed on conga. “Willow,” by Michael Burritt, featured a solo marimba part (Daniel Koslowski) embedded in an accompaniment of non-pitched percussion, an effective piece with a particularly fine conclusion – low, slow, and pianissimo.

An unusual novelty in the context of the program was a popular rag, “Frivolity,” from 1918 by George Hamilton Green, a xylophonist who led an orchestra which also included his brothers Joe and Lewis. (You can hear the original cylinder online at the site of the Percussive Arts Society [where the link is, alas, inactive, as of 11/09]). The work was charmingly played, deadpan, by soloist Charles Rosmarin, with the ensemble. The concert concluded with a big bang with Christopher Rouse’s “Ku-Ka-Ilimoku,” named for the Hawaiian god of war.