When Jeremy Gill introduced veteran percussion ensemble Nexus on just the second night of Rockport Music Festival’s 35th season, the genial composer / conductor served Shalin Liu Center’s classically steeped audience fair warning: with a wink, he predicted highly individualistic reactions to the deceptively simple, stark music of New York minimalist Steve Reich. “You can zone out, take a nap, or experience auditory hallucinations.” Sure enough: after the shocking barrage of five players’ piercingly vivid clavé strikes, wood on wood in wood in Music for Pieces of Wood, and the mellower resonating duos on Garry Kvistad’s handmade marimbas comprising Mallet Phase, I scanned the ⅔-filled hall to note neither obvious nod-offs nor walk-outs (a less savory alternative). And, well into Drumming Part 1—as these four seasoned sages of stickwork were flipping their hickories to Q-tipped heads as they faced each other in aggressive, quasi-military confrontation over six tuned bongos—I experienced an involuntary series of analogous hearings: metallic kalimba (African thumb piano) undertones, shrovetide dance patterns of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, Scottish fife-and-drum corps tattoos, and, as Kvistad and Bill Cahn subtly introduced infinitesimal blips into the finale, bebop rim-shots from master trap drummers like Philly Joe Jones. We exited the hall stunned, as if witnesses to a pond-full of crazed tree frogs.
After that trial by brush-fire, abetted by intermission refreshments and salubrious tongue-wag in the 3rd-floor lounge surveying the creamy sunset over Rockport harbor, things went easier. Much easier. Lord knows, the Nexus Ensemble can masterfully balance the programmatic polarities of stark innovation (John Cage, Louis Hardin, aka Moondog) and ragtime novelty (Green’s strenuous xylophone ditties) with tiki-lounge exotica, duck-call sonatas, free jazz, and improvisational experiments (another night) all served admirably by their patient, unspectacularly dazzling percussion virtuosity. Stomp, they ain’t. Blue Man Group? Nope. Founded in 1971, these Toronto-based, globetrotters enjoy high-profile classical commissions (Takemitsu, Zwilich, Reich), collaborations with a huge litany of North American and world symphonies, and contribute mightily to standard percussion literature. I knew of three admiring percussionists in the audience.
Legendary Manhattan street musician Louis Hardin, befriended by conductors Artur Rodzinski and Arturo Toscanini and revered by Reich and Philip Glass, played his slyly mellifluous pieces on homemade instruments, a sidewalk Harry Partch in Viking garb. For Moondog Suite, Russell Hartenberger arranged five varied and pretty pieces mainly for marimbas, vibraphone and tiny xylophones. The loose, jazzy “Snakebite Rattle” spiced textures up with cajon (seated box drum), shekeres (beaded gourds), and “I’m This, I’m That” again brought forth one of Nexus’ hallmark guest performers—newlywed Maria Finkelmeier sang the playful vocal and had kicked off the evening as ur-clavé clacker.
The Green pieces offered welcome diversion, amusement, hilarity—boffo party jokes after a surfeit of blackboard equations. George Hamilton Green, by 1910 the world’s first xylophone virtuoso, retired from music to pursue a new career—as a cartoonist. Bob Becker has followed Green, I suppose, as master xylophonist for this last half-century, as evidenced by the easy command (if momentarily faulty memory) he unleashed on Green’s latter-day adaptation of Dvorak’s “Humoresque” and his “Alabama Moon.” Lightly clutching small greenheaded mallets in a skittering susurrus of 64th notes, with just a bemused smile and half-nod to acknowledge such lickety-split derring-do, he could’ve been Charlie Chaplin with monkey-wrenches. Who needed encores?
Nexus also served as a new-music alert for Rockport Music’s star-studded jazz festival which comes after the classics fade-out in mid-July.