Point and counterpoint and the subtle brilliance of percussive instruments in a chamber music setting: If you’ve never attended a Percussion Ensemble performance, March 19 would be a good first time to come.
“You’ll experience a great variety of rhythmic delights, ranging through complex harmonies to extended unisons,” says Professor Douglas Walter, who’s been leading the CU Percussion Ensemble since 1990. He describes the group's playing—which gives students who usually hold down the accompaniment a chance to shine—as singular music-making.
“There’s nothing else like it. When you play here, you’re playing difficult parts as if you were a soloist, but you're coordinating those with the living rhythms of a select few people.”
As for audience members, an evening with the Percussion Ensemble offers myriad musical experiences, from the pulse-pounding to the aesthetically challenging to the introspective. The March 19 program is no exception. As Walter puts it, there’s a common thread that runs through the concert of Beethoven quartets, mathematics-inspired melodies and even minimalist experimentation.
“The rhythms are expressive all by themselves, but are then combined with fascinating timbral changes,” he says. “In ‘By-and-by’ by Thad Anderson, instead of giving the music a melodic line generated by his feelings, the composer allowed the mathematical implications to dictate how the notes organize themselves. You can grasp the relationships by intuition, but they aren’t necessarily linear.”
Alongside a handful of Bach inventions, Walter has programmed two pieces by longtime friend and composer Daniel Levitan, “Conservatory Garden” and “Redwood Box.” And perhaps inspired by Bach’s tinkering with the very construction of music, the solo marimba piece “Hurricane’s Eye” by Leander Kaiser turns what one might expect to be storytelling into music for music’s sake.
“It’s absolute, rather than programmatic,” Walter explains. “But the eye is the calmest part of a storm, so it’s hard to discern whether those story elements are there.”
A centerpiece of the program is Frederic Rzewski’s “Les Moutons de Panurge.” Notorious for its challenging simplicity and notation style, the 65-note piece is fascinating for performers and surprising for audiences.
“I played it in college at North Texas. It was a piece a group of friends and I just started playing because it was so much fun. Then when we performed it in concert, the audience was moved to participate. They started clapping in time with the music.”
The program also features several student marimbists performing solo works and a return performance by a trio of College of Music alumni—Todd Bills, Jacob Bori and J.R. Souders.
“They’re the ultimate millennial trio,” Walter explains of the alumni. “They earned their music degrees later, in their 20s and 30s. They accepted the fact that predictable life patterns are no longer necessarily applicable. You have so many choices nowadays.”
In that, the three are not unlike the percussion ensemble itself.
“This kind of music—chamber music—for many instrumentalists is the height of musical experience,” Walter concludes. “It’s music that’s not trying to impress. It’s inviting you into the intimate shared experience of a small group of people who deal with some of the greatest music ever written.”
The CU Percussion Ensemble takes the stage on Monday, March 19, at 7:30 p.m., in Grusin Music Hall. For more information, visit cupresents.org.