Aspen Percussion Ensemble to perform works by George Crumb, Augusta Read Thomas, Tan Dun and Steve Reich
If You Go …
What: Aspen Percussion Ensemble
Where: Harris Concert Hall
When: Monday, Aug. 7, 6 p.m.
How much: $25
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House and Harris Hall box offices; www.aspenmusicfestival.com
More info: Monday’s program includes Steve Reich’s Mallet Quartet, Tan Dun’s “Elegy: Snow in June,” Augusta Read Thomas’s “Selene,” George Crumb’s “Winds of Destiny” and a solo performance of Eric Sammut’s “Cameleon” by Keith Hammer III.
When Aspen Percussion Ensemble director Jonathan Haas was touring with composer Tan Dun and preparing to play Dun’s “Elegy: Snow in June,” the musicians scoured newsstands in search of the perfect paper.
The 1991 piece for amplified cello and percussion ensemble calls for a number of non-traditional percussion instruments. Among them is paper, to be torn to crescendo and diminuendo. On that initial tour, Haas said, they decided — after much rip-roaring research — that pages from the New York Times Magazine produced just the right tearing sound.
For Monday night’s Aspen Percussion Ensemble rendition of “Snow in June,” to bring some local flair to the much-anticipated annual recital at Harris Concert Hall, Haas and his students have decided to utilize Hickory House menu placemats instead.
“We felt, ‘We’ve come all this way — Aspen should be well-represented in the paper-tearing area,” Haas said with a smile Friday afternoon outside the Benedict Music Tent.
Ripped paper from the local barbecue joint has littered the floor of the percussion room on the Aspen Music Festival and School campus this summer.
“I think the students thought I may have lost my mind,” Haas said. “We spent a lot of time tearing paper. It has become an art form.”
Dun — the Chinese expatriate best known in pop culture for his “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” score — also makes use of stones, wine bottles and other unusual instruments in “Snow in June” along with traditional Chinese gongs and drums that the festival has gone to great length to provide for the concert.
“The variety of instruments that Tan Dun wrote for is extraordinary,” Haas said.
The Percussion Ensemble performance also includes the Aspen debut of Augusta Read Thomas’ “Selene.” The 2015 piece is the first major work for a string quartet and percussion quartet. Haas called it a watershed achievement for the new and growing repertoire for percussion quartets.
“What’s happened is this idea of a percussion quartet has emerged and become both popular and a destination for our students,” Haas said.
Recent quartets to emerge on the international classical music scene are So Percussion, Sandbox Percussion Quartet and Third Coast Percussion, which premiered “Selene” two years ago. Haas predicted that in years to come, audiences will see a flood of new works for the combination of string and percussion quartets following Thomas’ lead.
“It’s crafted so well and she’s composed to the strengths of all the instruments,” Haas said. “And there’s nothing wacky. You don’t have to go on a mountainside for a year and figure it out with a guru. It’s accessible. … This will have a very long life and lots of performances because of Augusta Read Thomas knowing exactly what she is doing.”
Over the weekend, during the ensemble’s final rehearsals, Thomas herself sat in with the students and offered feedback on their interpretation. She is a composer-in-residence this summer in Aspen.
“Selene” was suggested to Haas for the 2017 season by Aspen Music Festival vice president for artistic administration Asadour Santourian.
“This is a good example of a collaborative artistic director working with faculty,” Haas said.
The concert will open with a work by the composer who arguably originated the percussion quartet: Steve Reich’s Mallet Quartet. Haas, one of the world’s most acclaimed timpanists, has been performing a lot of Reich this year as the music world celebrates the composer’s 80th birthday. He also wanted to include Reich in the annual percussion spotlight. Haas chose the quartet because it’s one of his favorites and it’s one of the more approachable Reich pieces.
“Sometimes people are like, ‘Oh no, here comes the minimalist composer!’” Haas said. “But it doesn’t sound like that. It’s not looping forever. It keeps chugging along.”
The second half of the recital includes George Crumb’s deep and devastating “The Winds of Destiny.” This acclaimed 2011 piece, part of Crumb’s “American Songbook” series, features a soprano singing a cycle of American Civil War songs over often-haunting, disorienting, extremely complex percussion. Listeners will undoudtedly know these songs — “Shenandoah,” “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory,” “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and so on — but will never have heard them like this. Crumb’s wild “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” for instance, is sung over an anarchy of percussion sounds. A spiritual hymn is sung over a quotation of the funeral march from Mahler’s first symphony.
Crumb’s piece calls for more than 100 instruments and some extended techniques (a pianist must pluck the strings inside his piano, for instance). The percussionists are called on to whistle and to hoot like owls. Evoking slavery, they rattle chains. Mimicking battles, they fire a canon. It’s an adventurous, evocative work that has pushed and challenged Aspen’s percussion students this summer.
“It’s really hard to play,” Haas said. “But once you get past that point, you have to be able to take these sounds and turn them into something. Not just scrape a cymbal with a coin — as it calls for — but do it in a way that affects the audience. … My students have really enjoyed this because everybody is responsible for the totality of the piece. It’s not something you’re asked to do quite so much in an orchestral setting.”
Haas is in his 33rd year on the faculty in Aspen. Over that time, he has taken the eclectic Percussion Ensemble concert from a footnote event (the festival didn’t place it on the schedule in the early years, leaving Haas and his students to stage and promote it themselves) into one of the most anticipated annual events at the festival. He noted that he’s rarely repeated works here and has brought a wider variety of percussion works in Aspen than possibly any other festival can claim.
His 2017 percussion students, Haas said, are talented and committed enough to handle any musical challenge he throws at them.
“They’ve really go to want to do it,” he said. “This isn’t easy. And we’re not painting a picture of an alternate reality that doesn’t exist. Everybody’s got to be motivated and dedicated.”
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