Aspen Music Festival review: Percussion Ensemble stretches boundaries
August 9, 2017
The Percussion Ensemble's annual recital always travels in cutting-edge music, among the most adventurous of the Aspen Music Festival's offerings. Monday's performance was the meatiest in recent memory, including a new piece for percussion and string quartets by August Read Thomas and harrowing but often beautiful solo journeys for cello (by Tan Dun) and soprano (by George Crumb).
The entire program, by one-date composers (i.e., alive and still creating, so the program only shows birth dates), demonstrated the range possible from percussion. The opening work, Mallet Quartet by Steve Reich (from 2009), plays two large marimbas against two vibraphones, creating a mellow flow of shifting rhythms and sonorities. In "Caméléon" (from 1992), Eric Sammut's complex writing, rather like Chopin for mallets, wove a fascinating tapestry of subtle harmonies, played with ultimate refinement by Keith Hammer III.
The big pieces filled the stage with a dizzying array of percussion instruments, from bass drums and timpani to tiny ting-shas and triangles. It took a team of seven percussionists and one pianist to provide Crumb's shivering background to "Winds of Destiny (American Songbook IV)," the composer's unsettling 2004 set of seven Civil War songs. Soprano Malorie Casimir brought added drama to the songs with an amazing array of vocal colors, from whispers (modest amplification helped balance the volume with the percussion) to gospel-like shouts.
Crumb's settings of familiar tunes such as "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory," "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" and "Shenandoah" surround a mostly straightforward soprano line with rattles, pings, thumbs and sonic combinations that create complex sonorities. Second and third verses change the tone and dynamics for effect. If at times the results can be pretentious (slaves' chains rattling during "Johnny," for example), the overall effect mesmerizes, thanks especially to Casimir's heroically consistent efforts.
The cello carries the solo role in Tan Dun's 1992 "Elegy: Snow In June," his personal response to the brutal and tragic events of Tiananmen Square. It's not anger so much as a spiritual passage from anguish to resignation to grief expressed by an evocative cello line and dozens of percussion instruments creating wisps and clouds of sound. Richard Narroway executed the cello part with power and soul.
Thomas' piece, which percussion department head Jonathan Haas described as a groundbreaking marriage of the emerging standard of a percussion quartet with the classical string quartet, found congenial balances between the two instrumental families. The Vera Quartet's work was energetic and responsive, the interplay finely balanced. If the 17 minutes of the piece tested and sampled ideas without quite fleshing them out, it was fun to hear.
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Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 22 years. His reviews usually appear in The Aspen Times Tuesdays and Saturdays.