Drumming up support for Percussion Ensemble in Aspen
July 30, 2012
ASPEN – When Jonathan Haas founded the Aspen Percussion Ensemble 29 years ago and wanted to get his group a concert of its own at the Aspen Music Festival, the festival administration was happy to oblige – as long as Haas found a venue and did his own marketing. Haas picked a night that the Wheeler Opera House was otherwise unbooked.
“They reluctantly said, ‘You can use it, but don’t break it. And you’ll have to get your own audience,'” Haas recalled.
He and his students postered the town and played some congas outside a restaurant on the mall to gain attention for the gig.
The show drew a crowd, and the Percussion Ensemble became an annual, if something of a fringe, event. A few years in, the group played Christopher Rouse’s “Bonham,” an appropriately rocking tribute to the late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham. The smoke used for the piece set off the Wheeler’s smoke detector, which caused a commotion.
“There’s the percussion ensemble and a rock band; the alarm’s going off, and everybody thought it was part of the piece. Mayhem,” Haas said.
But it was also good publicity; the percussion concerts began seeing a bigger audience. When Harris Hall was built, in the mid-’90s, Aspen Music Festival President Robert Harth moved the concert there, bringing the ensemble another step closer to full acceptance.
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“That was a real nod to us, our concert and out art form,” Haas said. “When we started, the idea of a percussion ensemble was not only not on anybody’s curriculum – it wasn’t allowed. It was a cast-off concept that nobody knew what to do with.”
It’s getting harder and harder for Haas to play the underdog role. Percussion ensembles are standard at conservatories; Haas is artistic director of the one at Juilliard. Composers including John Cage, Philip Glass and Osvaldo Golijov have taken the percussion repertoire, which Haas confesses was
once loaded with goofy pieces, and added significant works to it.
And last week, for the first time in 28 years, a percussionist won a concerto competition at the Aspen Music Festival. Strangely, percussionists are lumped in with brass players in the competition, and it has become routine for the winner to come from the brass section. But recently Matthew Stiens, a 19-year-old who attends the University of Missouri at Columbia, bested the trombonists and tuba players, playing Joan Tower’s “Strike Zone,” a piece that requires an array of percussion instruments that takes up the width of the stage. Stiens will perform the work again Tuesday at the American Academy of Conducting at Aspen Orchestra’s free 4 p.m. concert at the Benedict Music Tent.
Haas has tried to get the percussion students a competition of their own; Stiens’ win is an acceptable blow to that effort.
“The problem is, a percussionist won it this year,” he said. “So there’s not so much of a compelling reason to have our stand-alone competition other than the fact that audiences love a percussion concert.”
The Aspen Percussion Ensemble’s annual summer performance gets regular billing on the Aspen Music Festival calendar alongside the concerts by string quartets and symphony orchestras, which Haas considers another achievement. But Haas also enjoys the group’s iconoclastic identity within the festival, adding uncommon instruments and sounds, humor, theatrical elements and a different kind of energy to the mix.
“It’s very visual, a very unusual experience,” Haas said of the percussion performances.
Audiences will have a chance to hear, and see, for themselves Monday, when the Percussion Ensemble plays at Harris Hall.
Among the pieces is David Ives’ “Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread.” Ives wasn’t a composer; he was a playwright, and “Philip Glass” was one of 12 mini-plays in Ives’ “All in the Timing” series that played off-Broadway. The piece (to be directed tonight by Ana Kepe, Haas’ wife) features no percussion instruments, just the percussionists using the spoken word to poke fun at Glass and the minimalists.
“If you look what’s going on on Broadway – ‘Stomp,’ Blue Man Group – percussionists more and more are being asked to act, speak, do physical movement,” Haas said.
Jolivet’s Flute Concerto No. 2 will feature flutist Bonita Boyd.
“You see a flute concerto – but where’s the orchestra?” Haas said. “The orchestra is percussion. And no melodic percussion, all drums, cymbals, tam tams, güiros. But it brings out the most expressive elements of what are arguably very simple instruments.”
The concert also will feature Cage’s “Constructions in Metal No. 3,” which Haas pinpoints as the most famous piece in the Percussion Ensemble repertoire and features found instruments including tuned coffee cans and the jawbone of an ass; Andrew Thomas’ solo marimba piece, “Merlin,” performed by Josh Vanderheide (“It’s the piece that raised the genre to, ‘Can you really play this?’ Yes, you can,” Haas said of its difficulty); Steve Reich’s recent quartet for two marimbas and two vibraphones; and George Antheil’s “Ballets Mecanique,” for four pianos, propellers, doorbells and seven percussionists.