2011 got off to a slow start in terms of new music in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Don’t get me wrong; there have been plenty of great individual and chamber recitals so far this semester, but the first concert solely programming 20th and 21st century music was Saturday afternoon’s performance by the University of Michigan Percussion Ensemble, dubbed ‘Crescendos’.
With the oldest piece on the program a two-marimba arrangement of György Ligeti’s harpsichord solo, Continuum (1968; score above), I expected to see composers and new music enthusiasts filling the seats of the intimate McIntosh Theater located on the lower level of the University of Michigan’s School of Music. However, I was quickly proven wrong as ranks upon ranks of families and Ann Arbor music-lovers filled the room to the brim, forcing many to stand or sit wherever they could find an empty piece of carpet. Steve Reich’s seminal Music for Six Marimbas and Ligeti’s aforementioned Continuum were the headliners in an exceptionally strong and wonderfully executed line-up of diverse and energetic percussion pieces.
Scott Verduin and Kyle Acuncius opened the concert with Continuum, which was originally conceived as a harpsichord solo to be played as fast as possible or at least at a tempo of 18 pitches per second. Though Saturday’s performance was slightly slower than the composer’s stipulation, the gradual harmonic unfoldings became more dramatic and emerged so strongly in the new tempo, I couldn’t help connecting this work’s sound-mass characteristics with its neighbors in Ligeti’s output: Atmospheres and Lontano. Starkly contrasting was the next piece on the program, the first movement of Nebojsa Jovan Zivkovic’s Trio Per Uno (1995). Thrillingly energetic, this work calls for three players to share a set up of bongo drums, cymbals and a communal bass drum, creating a sort of super-percussionist. The music was like highly sophisticated drum line music and opposed cooperative rhythmic grooves with outbursts of individual virtuosity.
Similar principles were present in Guo Wenjing’s Parade “Xuan” (2004), which the Percussion Ensemble’s director Professor Joseph Gramley described as “a kind of logistical feat as well as a test of musicianship”. Appearing fourth on the program, Parade explored a tapestry of timbre and percussion techniques on a set of six gongs shared between three players. At various points the gongs were struck while suspended, used as platforms for prayers bowls and stopped with hands and mallets to produce what Professor Gramley presaged as an, “exceptionally large range of textures and colors”. To make the difficult performance more impressive, video from above the percussion set up was simulcast on a projector; the percussionists’ physical balancing act was on full display alongside Mr. Wenjing’s capricious score. Sandwiched between Mr. Zivkovic’s Trio Per Uno and Parade was Christopher Deane’s very new work for five marimbas, Autumnal Thresholds (2010). Calm and modest beside its neighbors, the bulk work consisted of several successions of briefly stated chords framed within a constant rhythmic surface. At first, though, Mr. Deane treats each instrument as individual contrapuntal entities that ultimately fuse into a large harmonic body. Mr. Deane retains each player’s independence with irregular and individualized accents during the work’s main section and ends the work by dropping marimbas out of the texture in a reflection of the work’s opening structure.
Autumnal Thresholds acted as an aperitif to the afternoon’s other work for multiple marimbas, Steve Reich’s Music for Six Marimbas (1986). Equally important to American minimalism and percussion music, the piece is a compelling exploration of musical listlessness. Despite the lively surface texture of looping rhythms and melodies, development occurs over very long time scales, such that by the time the listener realizes he or she has arrived in a new musical destination, it is impossible to remember how the journey unfolded or what its impetus was. When the piece ends, it seems nominal or even obligatory; it is easy to imagine the music isn’t truly over but, rather, we have briefly experienced a musical world that goes on forever.
The final piece on the program featured on of the Percussion Ensemble’s most distinguished performers, Samuel Livingston. The work, percussionist Bob Becker’s States Medley (1988), is a highly stylized arrangement of ragtime music for a xylophone soloist (Mr. Livingston) and an accompaniment of two marimbas manned by four players. States Medley emerged out of the resurgence of ragtime in the 1980s and, in particular, harkens to the days when ragtime xylophone music was among the most popular in the country. Mr. Livingston and his partners on stage essentially accomplished with five people what one or two great ragtime pianists would have: a virtuosic and show-stopping treatment of popular tunes. Because States Medley has a program involving traveling across the country, historical postcards were projected during the performance to illustrate a journey that was clearly audible in the music.