in: Reviews

May 1, 2009

Cage, Birds, and the Tambourine Men

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Bass drums, marimbas, water gongs, sheet metal, and various other miscellanies filled the Boston Conservatory Theatre stage on April 26, a veritable truckload of equipment that could only suggest a percussion ensemble performance.  The Boston Conservatory Percussion Ensemble, directed by Keith Aleo and Samuel Z. Solomon, performed a gratifying program of five 20th- and 21st-century percussion pieces.  The performances were highly varied in styles, diverse in sounds, and wickedly difficult.  TBC ensemble exhibited a sense of stylistic sensitivity and instrumental skill well beyond the expectations of a student ensemble.  Moreover, they were engaged the audience and brought a sense of vibrancy into each piece. The program was truly without a dull moment.

The program began with a recently composed work written specifically for The Boston Conservatory Percussion Ensemble, …ayer…hoy…y mañana… by Jan Meza, to whose memory the concert was dedicated.  The piece progressed swiftly through an array of loosely connected melodic themes and rhythmic gestures.  The music was beautiful and intriguing, but ended entirely too soon.  The multiple themes that were introduced seemed not to have any chance to interact.  Despite some interesting uses of unconventional instruments (for instance, water bottles and bicycle wheels), the piece was unsettling in its underdevelopment.

Percussion ensembles are unlike any other ensembles in that there seems to be an endless collection of instrumental combinations and timbral possibilities.  Intentions, by Eugene Novotney, is quite unconventional, to say the least.  Each of four movements features three percussionists on the same group of instruments.  The first movement each player championed an assortment of triangles.  Giggles emanated from the crowd.  The unbelievable coordinated and virtuosic performance that followed was beyond imagination.  Similarly, the second movement featured none other than a canonic trio of tambourines!  This was followed by a wonderful exposition of music-stand-abuse and a cymbal and bass drum combination.  Aside from being wildly entertaining, Intentions was intelligent and deftly executed.

John Cage’s First Construction (in Metal) also sported a variety of unconventional instruments – Japanese and Balinese gongs, prepared piano, and a water gong.  The outer perimeter of the stage was lined with large hanging cuts of sheet metal.  As with much of the music of John Cage, the success of the performance relies on the delivery.  The ensemble was teeming with intensity, achhieving the highest standards for the revolutionary piece of percussion repertoire.

Special recognition is due to Cat Boyd, Brian Calhoon, Ethan Pani, and Long Ye for their noteworthy performance of Christopher Dean’s Verspertine Formations for four marimbas.  The piece is a colorful and motoric depiction of birds flocking across the North Texas horizon, constantly shifting in pulse and tonal orientation. As the piece dwindles into nothing, the performers mimic the sound of wings while holding brushes against the marimba mallets.  The piece was an arresting addition to the program.

I had the opportunity to see the premiere of Chris Gendall’s Hand in Hand during my undergraduate years in Miami about four years ago.  Gendall’s work is utterly captivating, and while it is difficult to compare two performances years apart, the Boston Conservatory Percussion Ensemble performed Hand in Hand with such a magnificent sense of nuance that it highlighted the merits of the piece.  TBC Percussion Ensemble put together a fantastic program, showing its dedication to contemporary works and uncanny abilities as performers.

Peter Van Zandt Lane is a composer and bassoonist who performs regularly in the Boston area. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Music Composition and Theory at Brandeis University.

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