Aspen Percussion Ensemble plans a (mini) light show for annual recital

Toby Grace will perform a solo work for snare drum during Monday's annual Percussion Ensemble recital at Harris Concert Hall.
Dustin Kushious/Courtesy photo


What: Aspen Percussion Ensemble

Where: Harris Concert Hall

When: Monday, Aug. 6, 6 p.m.

How much: $25

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House and Harris Concert Hall box offices;

More info: The program will include percussion works by Emmanuel Séjourné, Boulez, Debussy, Jolivet and George Crumb’s “A Journey Beyond Time (American Songbook II);” solo percussion competition winner Toby Grace will also perform “Tchik” by Nicolas Martynciow.

Taking a cue from this summer’s extreme drought conditions and burn ban, the Aspen Percussion Ensemble is substituting a small light show for open flames in its recital Monday night during Emmanual Séjourné’s “Vous avez du feu?”

Translated “Have You Got a Light?” this humorous two-minute percussion work is normally performed by igniting Bic lighters in rhythm in a darkened concert hall. But the Aspen Music Festival and School percussion program director Jonathan Haas thought it appropriate to instead use miniature keychain flashlights (he found the instruments on Amazon) during this dry and dangerous summer.

Haas cheekily said he and his students are doing their part to make up for the canceled Fourth of July fireworks show over Aspen Mountain, and the scuttled drone light show that was to replace it.

“We promised Aspen fireworks and they’re going to get it,” said Haas, now in his 34th year on the faculty in Aspen.

The whimsical Séjourné piece opens a program from the always-adventurous and popular 18-student Percussion Ensemble that focuses, in its first half, entirely on French composers in keeping with the festival’s Paris-themed summer season.

The recital closes with George Crumb’s “A Journey Beyond Time,” from the composer’s “American Songbook” series, from which the Percussion Ensemble also performed last summer in what was hailed by many as a high point of the 2017 Aspen Music Festival season. Last year’s Crumb selection, “The Winds of Destiny,” hauntingly rearranged traditional Civil War songs. The 40-minute “A Journey Beyond Time” offers new settings of iconic African-American spirituals for a percussion quartet, voice and piano. It includes “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Joshua Fit de Battle Ob Jericho,” “Nobody Knows de Trouble I See” and “Steal Away.” They will be sung by Lynnesha Crump, who is in Aspen this summer studying with Carol Vaness.

“Because last year was such a success, we said, ‘Alright, let’s keep going,’” Haas explained.

Crumb’s series has seven parts. Haas didn’t rule out continuing through the series in the years of concerts to come.

The opening light show will be followed by Boulez’s “Improvisation su Mallarmé,” from the composer’s vaunted 1962 work “Pli selon pli” for percussion ensemble, soprano and harp and based on the poems of Stéphane Mallarmé. Opera student Vivian Yau will provide vocals.

From there the ensemble tackles Claude Debussy’s “Pagodes,” arranged by Percy Grainger in 1928.

“The sonic landscape on this is so well done,” Haas said. “Here is a pianist (Grainger) who really knows what he is doing with a full orchestra and he’s now arranging for a percussion ensemble. It’s an early piece and most people don’t know about it.”

The French portion of the evening closes with a classic, in Jolivet’s flute and percussion ensemble suite, which will feature soloist Nadine Asin, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra flutist and longtime Aspen Music Fest faculty member. Influenced by American jazz, the piece calls for sounds like a cracking whip and sleigh bells (“You hear the instruments, but it has nothing to do with Santa,” Haas said).

The annual recital also will offer a glimpse of a new terrain in percussion music. This year’s solo percussion winner, Toby Grace, will play a solo piece on a snare drum. Titled “Tchik,” by Frenchman Nicolas Martynciow, it is part of a growing body of work devoted to solo snare drum, using inventive extended techniques to find complexity in the seemingly simple drum. Grace, a rising sophomore at the Juilliard School who discovered a passion for music as a child playing video games like “Guitar Hero,” won the Cleveland Orchestra’s solo competition devoted to the snare (the competition was founded by Aspen alum and Cleveland Orchestra member Thomas Sherwood).

“Believe it or not, we now have a repertoire and we have interested, incredible talented young people who are interested in making the snare drum a solo instrument,” Haas said. “You’ll hear snare drum and the artistry of it played at the highest level.”