Music Review: Percussion Ensemble Quartets

By Peter Jacobi – Reviewer, Herald Times, Bloomington Indiana
October 23, 2008

Always amazing to watch while attending a concert by the IU Percussion Ensemble is the dexterity that its members exhibit, the dexterity along with the command they have over a vast array of instruments.

These young men and women seem to handle with equal aplomb all the various drums, the mallet-struck keyboard instruments, the bells and whistles, the gongs and cymbals and multitudinous other noise makers. When they take to the stage, not only are one’s ears overwhelmed by torrents of sound, but the eyes have acts of virtuosity to marvel.

Monday evening in Recital Hall, director John Tafoya divided his talented charges into foursomes. All of the five pieces on the program were scored for quartets. That allowed an attendee to focus even more carefully on individual contributions and merits. It’s easier to see what four players are doing at once than a battalion of engaged musicians.

Tafoya himself provided one item, a lush arrangement for marimbas and such of the second movement from Ravel’s F Major String Quartet. Since the composer sought in the original version of that movement to suggest the sound of a gamelan orchestra, Tafoya had a head start. His development of the music’s atmospheric lyricism was true to essence, and the players treated the piece with technical dazzle and respect to temperament.

Since the Ravel was written in 1903, it is accurate to say the entire program was devoted to 20th century music. But not only time separated his work from the others treated, those dating to the 1980s and ’90s. There was stylistic distance. One heard, for instance, “Laundromatica Diabolica” (“The Devil’s Laundromat”), composed in 1999 by a young man, Chappell Kingsland, studying in the Jacobs School, who was present to receive audience accolades. Kingsland employed drum sets and mallet instruments in such a manner that one almost believed, even though scores were visible and used, that the music was improvisational, like in an extemporized jazz session, way far different from the Ravel.

Charles Griffin’s 1998 “Persistence of Past Chemistries” opened the concert, a composition of teasing rhythms for mallet keyboards intermingling jazz with the repetitive nature of minimalism. Again, as throughout the hour, the four musicians, unidentified, accomplished wondrous feats of coordination and sound production. Those mallets moved so fast they almost disappeared before one’s eyes.

An Australian composer, Nigel Westlake, used a Paul Klee painting as inspiration for his 1984 “Omphala Centric Lecture,” a more jarring yet also intriguing piece developed in fragmented tonal bursts. The concert came to a close with David Hollinden’s “The Whole Toy Laid Down,” premiered in 1994, a work that required of its four musicians an almost terrifying intensity of performance in terms of pace and rhythmic complexity. The requirements were nimbly and vigorously met.

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