Percussion ensembles haven’t been a common feature of Maverick’s regular season concerts. But the 100th season began on Saturday with NEXUS, an internationally known touring percussion ensemble, familiar to local audiences from the Woodstock Beat concerts and the bi-annual Drum Boogie Festival. Area resident Garry Kvistad (newest member of this 44-year-old ensemble) has brought many percussion events to Ulster County, and he connected with composer Peter Schickele for a commission receiving its premiere at the concert.
The concert took place on a cold, rainy evening, limiting the audience to the number of people who could fit inside the hall. (There are more seats outdoors.) Saturday evening concerts don’t always draw large audiences but for this event the hall was full. The program began with “Sky Ghost,” a composition by NEXUS member Russell Hartenberger for percussion and two voices, provided by Amy Fradon and Kirsti Gholson. It sounded to me as though someone had taken a piece by Steve Reich, smashed it into fragments with a hammer, and then reassembled parts of it in random order, then overlaying syrupy pop duets over parts of it. In short, not my favorite piece of the evening, although the scoring was expert and the performance was impeccable. The piece seemed to last longer than the 11 minutes it lasted.
Peter Schickele may still be best known as the creator of P.D.Q. Bach, but he has always been active as a serious composer and he has now retired from comedy shows to concentrate on concert music. Schickele’s “serious” music always incorporates his sense of humor, though. His Percussion Sonata No, 3, “Maverick,” was written for the 100th anniversary season and received its premiere at this concert. It’s highly entertaining music, written with considerable variety, imagination, and, as usual with Schickele, intriguing development. However, I must protest one piece of misrepresentation; the final movement, which Schickele introduced and described as ragtime, was actually almost pure boogie-woogie.
I can’t resist including a Schickele comeback here. Kvistad introduced him to “describe his experiences at the first Maverick concert 100 years ago.” Schickele replied, “It was a very meaningful event for me. I got to see Garry there for the first time in years.”
NEXUS has long promoted the music of George Hamilton Green (1893-1970), a pioneering xylophone player, composer, and recording artist. The ensemble has even released an all-Green CD. The composer retired to Woodstock and is buried here. Green’s music is what you would usually hear described as “semi-classical” and it has no complexity or profundity, but it’s fun to hear, especially with the amazing Bob Becker as virtuoso soloist. (He and Bill Cahn have arranged the accompaniments for the ensemble.) Four Green pieces is probably enough for me at one time but they’re fun.
The entire second half of the program was occupied by an amazing sequence of Persian songs composed by Reza Ghassemi. Russell Hartenberger met the singer Sepideh Raissadat at a graduate seminar he taught in Toronto. He writes, “She presented a paper relating to her experiences as a professional singer of classical Iranian music in a country whose government did not allow women to sing as soloists in public. She was one of the most famous vocalists in Iran, but the only way listeners could hear her was by way of pirated recordings.” Hartenberger got in touch with Ghassemi and received his permission to arrange his songs.
Raissadat was soloist at this concert, singing and accompanying herself on the setar, a Persian stringed instrument. It doesn’t sound like a sitar, but the music reminded me very much of some Indian music I’m familiar with. A musically knowledgeable friend who was at the concert told me that Persian music was a major influence on the development of North Indian music. Ghassemi’s songs range from engaging to transfixingly beautiful. Raissadat is a superb performer. Her beautiful voice (amplified here) is extremely expressive and flexible, pure in tone. She and the percussionists were obviously comfortable with the rhythmically complex music. Most of the eight songs on the program were done with the percussion ensemble, but for three of them Raissadat sang accompanied only by her setar, which enabled us to hear what a virtuoso player she is. Although the songs were not brief, the audience was so enthusiastic in our response that we coaxed another song out of the players. Their CD of this music is currently in production.