One sure good thing about new music concerts, and there have been quite a few around the town particularly during this month, is that they are almost always free. Why more of Boston’s big listenership doesn’t give these concerts a try is something to think about. After all, a listener could be surprised at what he or she might discover. If not, well, nothing’s really lost, is it? ALEA III’s concert on Wednesday, April 27 at Boston University may be a case in point.
Consider this: when’s the last time anyone of us has attended a percussion concert here in one of the biggest music-making cities of the world? Guests of ALEA III, students from both Boston University and Boston Conservatory Percussion Ensembles, along with members of Gamelan Galak Tika, put on some kind of show at Tsai Performance Center at BU’s Commonwealth Avenue campus.
Samuel Z. Solomon, who currently teaches at both schools, directed his students in an eye-opening program headlined “International Percussion.” Just to see instruments usually hidden behind standard ones at most venues was something absolutely revitalizing. It’s been a while since I’ve seen so much that I must confess having had a good deal of fun trying to remember what was what.
Before the concert got underway, I browsed the seven pages of small font notes on the compositions and composers and found them inviting. The first half of the program was worth the outing in every way. Not so for the second half — the performers yes, the pieces no.
On stage for the opener were two monster-sized marimbas. So large, both performers danced their way from lower to higher registers, their focus intense, their mallets — two in each hand — whizzing, and their synchronization quite something to shout about. There was pronounced delicacy, too, in their rendering of Duo de Marimbas from Le Livre des Claviers by Philippe Manoury (France).
I overheard Gunther Schuller, seated behind me, comment: “I have pretty good ears. The notes were so fast I couldn’t hear them.”
In a welcome and intriguing, if not somewhat diverting kind of theatrical touch, percussionists appeared in alternating light and darkness with “wooden weft of a pair of marimbas” set against a “metallic” vibraphone and “pealing” crotales (“antique” cymbals). These students also were entirely absorbed in reproducing attractive and affective droplets of notes in a stylistic, dreamlike mix by Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu entitled Rain Tree.
For his Pulau Dewata (“Beautiful Isle”), Canadian composer Claude Vivier drew upon “a succession of nine melodies, which owe their inspiration to the Vivier’s trip to Bali and Thailand.” Five mallet instruments were played in unison. Such reinforcement of a “single line” generated percussion power and that kind of exhilarating experience of precision as that witnessed in the very best of marching bands.
Synchronism No.5 by Argentinian/US composer Mario Davidowsky featured just under two handfuls of tympani and an assortment, no doubt an expensive one, of percussive instruments. Still more percussion, including gamelan, appeared in the closer, which was the “world premiere” of Cycle by Ramon Castillo (the program did not list his nationality). As so often can happen, these two pieces promised more to the eye than to the ear. No.5 came off sounding very much like huge wind chimes; you know how you first enjoy their random clinks then move on. Cycle promised even more and delivered even less, its “Monkey Chant” utterances from Gamelan Galak Tika didn’t help either.
Special guest Gabriela Diaz and director Samuel Solomon gazed delightfully upon 11 Short Pieces for Violin and Vibraphone by American composer Charles Wuorinen. Violin? The first piece, I believe had two notes. Altogether, these “(a) 7 Short Pieces and (b) 4 Shorter Pieces” seemed to make more sense as one not-too-short piece. Solomon kept my eye and ear on his every mallet move in a sensitive casting of Soliloquy by Donald Martino, also an American composer. “Though spoken through a 12-tone voice, the arguments on both sides of the debate retain the charm of a Jazz improviser,” wrote Solomon. I thought it was purely Solomon who tinged ever so slightly and beautifully his performance with that compelling feel of American improvisation.
It certainly was a night of percussion that was well worth being there for. Solomon and every single one of the percussionists should receive a straight A!
David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. www.notescape.net.