Canadian percussion ensemble wows UMKC audience

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Posted on Mon, Oct. 28, 2002

By MICKEY COALWELL

Special to The Star

Nexus came with their bells and whistles. And xylophones, marimbas, vibraphones, glockenspiels, gongs, claves, panpipes, cymbals, and rattles. And drums. Oh, yes, lots and lots of drums.

The celebrated Canadian percussion ensemble wowed the sizable White Hall audience Saturday night in the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Performing Arts Center with a program that exploited the myriad possibilities of struck, hammered and pounded instruments.

The concert opened with five middle-aged, bespectacled and balding men dressed in black walking on stage with a pair of large wooden dowels, called claves, in their hands. They proceeded to perform Steve Reich’s “Music for Pieces of Wood,” a delightful rhythmic tour-de-force that immediately won the audience over.

Nexus has had a long and distinguished musical career beating on things. For over 30 years, the ensemble has been exploring music written specifically for, or arranged for, percussion. They’ve traveled the globe performing, listening, learning and, of course, adding to their collection of instruments.

We heard Swiss cowbells, Southeast Asian water buffalo bells, Chinese drums, Tibetan prayer bowls, Japanese cup bowls, African talking drums, and Middle Eastern finger drums. All of these instruments were used in compositions that highlighted their unique qualities.

One of Nexus’ closest collaborators over the years was the late Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu. The group paid homage to him in four pieces by Takemitsu arranged by Nexus: “Sky Ghost,” “Will Tomorrow, I Wonder, Be Cloudy or Clear?,” “I Just Sing,” and “Wings.” Takemitsu was a gifted melodist, and his original tunes are simple and memorable. Nexus’ arrangements added a layer of Western sophistication to the melodies.

“Fra Fra,” an African-inspired piece based on rhythmic patterns of the Fra Fra people of northern Ghana, and “Kebjar-Bali,” inspired by the traditional gamelan music of Bali, both draw on world music influences but are clearly molded into Western musical forms.

Much can be said for the somewhat experimental (and very beautiful) “Lullaby for Esme,” a piece which employs steel drums as its principal melodic vehicle, but has a Middle Eastern, not a Caribbean, flavor. It showed clear elements of Western sonata-form, despite its modal melody and use of exotic instruments.

The songs of Tin Pan Alley may seem a strange place to end a concert that began with Steve Reich, but at Nexus member Bob Becker commented, the marimba and xylophone were hugely popular instruments during the ’20s. Three virtuoso medleys on popular American songs concluded the concert, with Becker an absolutely sizzling xylophone soloist.

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