Master percussionists beat the drum.
The Music Fine Arts Series at Sarasota’s First United Methodist Church presented a most unusual program last week: “Soundscapes: Masterworks for Percussion.” Thing is, not only were the works by master composers, they were played by the true masters of America’s young percussionists. They came from far and wide. Kyle Brightwell and Matt McKay are both with the Boston Symphony. Jim Benoit plays for the Sarasota Opera Orchestra. Mike Truesdell is a soloist and teaches at Rutgers. And the guy who put it all together, George Nickson, is principal percussionist with the Sarasota Orchestra.
Take their opener, which featured Benoit, Brightwell, McKay and Truesdell playing bongos with sticks in “Drumming — Part I,” by Steve Reich. (They rehearsed it on the beach, we were told, which must have made for quite a drum circle.) Written in 1971, right in the middle of the 20th century’s experimental zone, this piece features “phasing,” a technique that starts with one group of notes and one player, building as the performers appear, one by one. This produced fascinating rhythms with sticks flying every which way and tones mounting on tones while dynamics and colors were splashed across the stage.
“Aphasia,” by Mark Applebaum, is for one performer — Mike Truesdell — and he didn’t play a note. Rather, this tall, bespectacled man, dressed in black, sat on a stool, and, as a recording played squeaks, creaks, pitched howls and gurgling bubbly sounds, he moved his limbs in something reminiscent of a spasmodic sign language dance that was pure communication in body language.
Alejandro Vinao’s “Arabesco Infinito,” supposedly inspired by Debussy, had neither an arabesque nor a touch of impressionism in store for Benoit on vibraphone and Nickson on marimba, but it did have sounds and rhythms that put me back in the 1960s (although it was written in 2006) and is one of those pieces that’s probably more interesting to play than listen. On the other hand, Stockhausen’s “Vibra-Elufa,” for solo vibraphone with Benoit, was as much fun to watch as it was to hear.
The program ended with all the percussionists, joined by violinist Samantha Bennett, performing the fascinating “No Two Breaths,” composed in 1995 by Steve Mackey. This unusual and varied combination of instruments was as much sound effects as it was music, but it was very effective. Not of much help were the sneezes, coughs and cell phone jingles adding punctuations from the audience. Even Siri got into the act toward the end, assuring us that the electronic age is surely here.