Friday, November 7, 2003
By Matt Steel
Special to the Gazette
In the Western world, percussion instruments have lagged behind other instruments of the orchestra and concert stage in achieving true artistic equality.
This is not the case in much of the rest of the world.
In India, a classically trained percussionist would not think of taking second billing behind any singer or melody instrument player. Orchestras of melodic percussion, such as the gamelan of Indonesia, admit few string and wind instruments into the ensemble.
The situation is changing in the West as more and more reputable composers produce thoughtful percussions works and as groups of superbly talented percussionists, such as Nexus, expose audiences to percussion’s full musical potential.
On Thursday night, a near-capacity audience at Western Michigan University’s Dalton Center Recital Hall got to experience the five-man percussion ensemble Nexus.
The concert was presented by Fontana Chamber Arts in cooperation with WMU’s School of Music.
As the program began, the stage was almost completely filled with percussion instruments. And it was interesting that the group started with a piece that played them as basically non-tuned military marching instruments.
Titled “Away Without Leave,” the work is a medley arranged by Nexus member Bob Becker. In addition to military snares and bass drum, melodic tom-toms and timbales were used. With this piece, the group established their incredibly cohesive ensemble playing.
Russell Hartenberger was featured on vibraphone in the work “Sonata #2 Woodstock” by Peter Schickele (aka P.D.Q. Bach). Devoid of Schickele’s usual musical irony, it is a beautiful work in two movements. In the second movement, Hartenberger bowed on the vibraphone bars, creating a eerie, shimmering sound.
It was Hartenberger and Bill Cahn who began Steve Reich’s “Drumming Part 1,” playing on a row of variously tuned timbales.
The work explores the movement in and out of phase of rhythmic patterns as rests are added and taken away. Becker and Garry Kvistad joined in with added patterns and the result was a methodical movement from synchronization to near chaos and back.
The concentration of the players was astonishing as they varied their patterns over a lengthy time period.
In a work called “Tongues,” a reference to the plucked instruments used, Nexus drew upon the percussion and music of the Shona tribe of Zimbabwe.
Becker played an ebullient polyphonic tune on a plucked “thumb piano” known as an Mbira. He played this inside of a large gourd as Hartenberger played a rattle, Cahn played a larger plucked Marimbula and Engelman played a standing conical drum.
The exotic nature of this music had the audience enthralled.
Certainly the hit of the night was a work arranged by and featuring Becker called “Bye Bye Medley.” Becker took old-time standards “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “Bye Bye Blues” and turned them into virtuoso showpieces for the xylophone.
Backed by the ensemble on marimbas, Becker took the tunes through a torrid flurry of notes showing his remarkable dexterity and accuracy. Quite deservedly, this work earned Nexus a standing ovation which solicited two encores from the group.
In a show of outstanding ensemble, they played Toru Takemitsu’s jazzy “Song of Circles and Triangles.” Nexus finished with a lush arrangement of Takemitsu’s “Wings,” played on soft mallets all around the marimbas and vibraphone.
© 2003 Kalamazoo. Used with permission
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