Aspen Percussion Ensemble drums up a loyal audience
August 3, 2009
ASPEN – When the Aspen Percussion Ensemble made its first appearance, 25 years ago, it wasn’t what you’d call a formal debut. The concert was not on the official Aspen Music Festival program. Jonathan Haas, the director of the ensemble, and his students put fliers up around town, and secured the Wheeler Opera House for the occasion.
“The festival wasn’t sure it wanted the concert,” said Haas. “They said, ‘Try it if you like. Good luck.'”
The lukewarm reception didn’t come as a surprise. At the time, the percussion ensemble was a novel concept, and the material they had to work with was thin. But Haas recalled his summers as a student in Aspen in the mid-’70s, and seeing faculty member Barry Jekowsky gamely lead his fellow percussionists in what he believes was the festival’s first official gathering of drummers.
“No one knew about it. A couple of composers came out for it,” said Haas. “In 1974 there wasn’t a rich repertoire, at least not that we knew about in the U.S. There were several pieces, some of them pretty corny.”
That has all changed before Haas’ eyes. The percussion ensemble has established itself as a viable element in concert music, and the repertoire has grown with it, thanks in part to Haas. Several works have been commissioned for the Aspen ensemble, including pieces by Lou Harrison and Peter Schickele (a.k.a. P.D.Q. Bach), and Haas has been inventive in co-opting music composed for other instruments and making it into percussion music.
The fight for acceptance, as it turns out, has not been difficult. Percussion has taken a natural position of leadership as various sorts of folk music has been introduced into the classical fold. Haas has had little trouble attracting well-known soloists to collaborate; flutist Nadine Asin and violinist Robert McDuffie have made repeat appearances with his group. “My collaboration with the Aspen Percussion Ensemble of Lou Harrison’s Suite for Violin and American Gamelan remains one of my happiest memories in Aspen. I have much admiration for Jonathan Haas’s energy and vision,” said McDuffie in a written statement.
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And by year three, the ensemble had made it into the official Music Festival program. There it remains; Tuesday’s 8 p.m. concert in Harris Hall is listed alongside symphony and chamber music performances.
Haas notes that there was already momentum in the percussion world by the time he staged his first concert here. “In the ’70s, you had real, viable percussion pieces making it into the repertoire,” said Haas, a New York University professor whose career highlights include premiering Philip Glass’ Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists, in 2000.
Leading the way was “Ringing Changes,” a 1970 work by Charles Wuorinen that has its Aspen debut Tuesday. “This was the first piece to come out in the modern-day repertoire, that explained that percussion instruments, solely on their own, could play a 17-minute chamber music piece of enormous depth, complexity and musical interest that rivaled any other instrumental form,” said Haas. “Even by today’s standards, this piece remains at the top of the list of challenging, virtuosic and very satisfying pieces.”
Not to mention difficult to stage. “Ringing Changes” requires 12 musicians, who play pianos, tuned anvils, cymbals, drums, and almglocken – otherwise known as Alpine bells, or cowbells. “You can’t do this piece in many other places than Aspen,” said Haas. “We have the depth of talent, and the number of students.”
A poignant example of the modern composer showing affection for percussion is “Mariel,” a work for cello and marimba by Osvaldo Golijov that was performed at the reopening of New York’s Alice Tully Hall this past winter and is on Tuesday’s program, featuring marimbist Ian Sullivan. Golijov was in Aspen recently to oversee performances of his work, and returns as a composer-in-residence next summer.
Another marimba piece on the program, with soloist Robert Garza, is Bach’s Lute Suite No. 1. Only in the last decade, said Haas, with the creation of five-octave marimbas, did it become possible to play a work for lute on the marimba. “We are all certain, if Bach were alive today, he’d have written for the marimba and vibraphone,” said Haas. “Because we’re always in tune. Bach would have liked that.”
The concert closes with Robert Miller’s “Full Circle,” a work commissioned for the Aspen Percussion Ensemble in 1996.
The work that Haas calls the “show-piece” on Tuesday’s program is Cantata para America magica, by Ginastera. Featuring 18 percussionists and two sopranos, it is among the largest pieces in the percussion ensemble repertoire. The performance features local actor David Ledingham as the Aztec warrior/narrator, and is an example of how Haas looks for novel events that mix artistic disciplines.
Of course, Haas has been shaking it up since the beginning. That first concert he conducted in Aspen featured pieces by Frank Zappa – whose music is in heavy rotation in Haas’ shows – and “Bonham,” Christopher Rouse’s tribute to Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham. The performance featured costumes, and a fog machine, which set off the fire alarm. “The audience thought it was part of the piece. Until the music ended, and the alarm was still ringing,” said Haas.
Haas says percussion music is a distinct attraction in the context of the Aspen Music Festival. Where else do you find theater, rock ‘n’ roll, Aztec warriors and fire alarms?
“My view is that this is one of the really fun and imaginative concerts of the festival,” said Haas. “This is so unusual, for percussion instruments to make music all by itself. It always brings out an inquisitive audience, asking, ‘Can drums make music?'”