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Hats Off to NEC’s Percussion Ensemble


The audience for New England Conservatory’s percussion concert at Jordan Hall on Sunday evening, Nov. 21, was not large — it started with about thirty and grew to maybe a hundred later in the evening. Many who might otherwise have been there were probably across Huntington Avenue at Symphony Hall for Boston University’s event honoring Roman Totenberg, and I would have been happy to have been in two places at once. But this unusual percussion concert was special.

The brass component was in fact just one, trombonist Ronald Barron, who retired from the Boston Symphony’s first chair two years ago, after 33 years. He was the agile and expressive soloist in a jazzy piece, Charles Small’s We’ve Got Rhythm, for trombone and four percussionists (xylophone, vibraphone, timpani, and trap set). It was enjoyable though fragmented here and there, and the trombone line seemed to jump around too much; I wanted the A-minor tango section to go on longer. It was preceded by a multimedia piece, Scott Stinson’s Rus’ for one percussionist, with electronics and video. The video component included a mixture of icons of Russian saints and battle heroes, photographs of the last imperial family, and war scenes; I couldn’t tell how well it was integrated with the audio tape, which was so loud it drowned out nearly all of the live percussion. The instruments surrounded the soloist, Richard Chwastiak, who did his best to make himself heard.

The first half of the program concluded with XI by Qu Xiao-Song. Frank Epstein conducted the ensemble of six percussionists who were arrayed at the sides and rear of the stage. This work had some well-grouped and interesting sounds, as when all four marimbas (ranging from alto down to contrabass, I thought) played soft tremoli on notes spaced octaves apart, while the players hummed in the background. At other times I heard marimba chords spaced in a pentatonic scale and the unusual sound of antique cymbals struck and placed on the drumhead of a single timpano, while the player operated the pedal to raise the drum pitch. The antique cymbals were also made to sound a high sinusoidal shriek by being bowed with a double-bass bow, but I’ve heard this effect before. There was a black bowl-like object, too; I think it was a Korean gong, and it made a delicate metallic sound when struck lightly with a wooden stick. The entire piece was a successful blend of Eastern and Western percussion.

Gunther Schuller’s Symbiosis led off after the intermission. Boston’s most beloved senior composer, 85 years old this year, wrote Symbiosis in 1957 for piano, violin, and one percussionist playing chiefly drums and cymbals of various sizes. In five movements, this work showed Schuller’s youthful interest in post-Webern fragmentation and gestures, but also his absorption in jazz fluency, which made for a subtle and agreeable dialogue. In the third piece, the pianist took up the guïro (notched gourd) while the violinist rattled maracas before both players settled down with their normal instruments. The excellent performers were Emilia Burlingham, violin, Christopher Lim, piano, and Victoria Aschheim, percussion.

The final work on the program was also by far the most massive, Tutuguri VI (Kreuze) for six percussionists by the German composer Wolfgang Rihm. The program notes mentioned the work’s origin as six pieces extracted from a ballet after Antonin Artaud. It was about thirty-five minutes long, and I remained focused on every second. The six players, ranged around the sides and rear of the stage as before, were each equipped with a bass drum (ranging in size from small to very large), a set of snare drums, a set of tomtoms, and a conga drum; individually distributed was an assortment of woodblocks, gavels, tamtams and gongs. The six pieces were run together as a series of episodes, first the bass drums, then the snares, then the tomtoms, et cetera, with an amazing dialogue between the individual instruments, which one could see visually at the same time as feeling it viscerally. With the snares, the dialogue was of rolls versus measured paradiddles versus sharply-struck flams and single notes, passed back and forth between the players, unbroken for several intense minutes. I couldn’t tell whether the few intervals of almost-silence were breaks between the pieces because they were punctuated by soft gestures as well; what was important was how dramatic these apparent pauses were. Every so often there was a unison of all six players, sometimes with a rhythmic pattern that repeated, but most often there would be a group of four of the players apparently together and interrupted by the remaining two. I would never have thought that I would remain interested in such a long and so mercilessly loud work as this, but I was happy to be so surprised, even without any pitches at all. Well, not quite; at one point all the players began to sing an upward glissando, growing in volume to a shout. I felt this was Rihm’s tribute to the sirens in Varèse’s Ionisation, the granddaddy of all percussion-ensemble pieces. Frank Epstein conducted, and from what I could tell it was mostly 4/4 and sometimes 5/4, which makes perfect sense when so much unison playing was involved.

Hats off to the NEC Percussion Ensemble that brought forward this difficult and exciting program: Victoria Aschheim, Joe Becker, Richard Chwastiak, Derek Dreyer, Jacob Garcia, Ethan Pani, Caleb Ping, and pianist Malcolm Campbell.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.

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