Portland Percussion Group review: Low and Mighty

Ensemble's concert of marimbas, vibraphones and newly commissioned music hits high notes amid the low notes

At a percussion ensemble concert, I expect to see a stage full of equipment. Percussion music traditionally calls for arrays of timpani, bass drums, snare drums, side drums, tom-toms, tam-tams, small gongs, large gongs, water gongs, congas, bongos, woodblocks, tables full of shakers and bells, amplified cacti, giant steel racks hung with giant glass bowls, and so on. So when I walked into The Old Church for Portland Percussion Group‘s end of season concert, I was surprised and delighted to see only four instruments: two marimbas and two vibraphones.

The vibes were small enough–typical three octave Mussers–but the marimbas were a matched pair of five octave behemoths, their range extending well into contrabass territory. I’ve played a few 4.3-octave marimbas, and even in that register you can feel the low A in your guts. I knew that three of the compositions PPG (Chris Whyte, Brett Paschal, Paul Owen, Brian Gardiner) would be playing that night had been composed specifically for the ensemble, winners of their recent “2×4” call for scores, and had every expectation of hearing music written with that bottom octave in mind. I took care not to sit too close, and checked to make sure my ear protection was handy.

Portland Percussion Group performed at Portland's Old Church.

Portland Percussion Group performed at Portland’s Old Church.

Christopher Bradford’s Marimba Quartet No. 2, third prize winner of PPG’s call for scores, set the right tone for the evening, with its rhythmic variations on 6/8 and 5/4 motifs and its ample use of the marimbas’ five octaves. Every time the mallets wandered into that lowest octave, especially when resonant open fifths and octaves appeared in the bass, nervous system agents in my gut tried to inform me that someone was covertly playing the pedals on The Old Church’s majestic old organ.

Definitely my favorite of the evening, Gordon Stout‘s Skylark Orange Circles lived up to its Torkean synesthetic promise, octatonic and Lydian modes expanding and contracting from close jazz chords to broad, open-spaced stacks of augmented fourths. The quick 7/16 rhythmic motif anchoring the piece recurred with and without figurations and arpeggiations, leading the ear to interpret the odd meter alternately as a precisely articulated complex meter or a very unusual swing. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Stout has spent as much time studying jazz vibraphone master Stefon Harris as he has Olivier MessiaenSomewhere in all that sparkling uncanny post-tonal consonance, I swear I really did hear a skylark flying in bright orange circles.

Kylle Strunk’s lovely and timely second-prize-winning Oaxacan Fantasy delighted me with both its unapologetically traditional tonality (for which the composer, in attendance, unnecessarily apologized) and its staginess, with players moving around the marimbas, playing from either side in turn, carefully executing complicated polymetric hockets with their backs to each other. I must confess that I haven’t spent much time listening to or studying Latin American marimba music, and couldn’t find much substance in the musical material; perhaps it is only that we were listening to dangerous party music in a safe and pointedly non-partying context.

Although I genuinely enjoyed Marc MellitsGravity, I found its familiarity slightly distracting. It’s not just that it was so reminiscent of Philip Glass, with its repeating patterns of major seventh chords and descending aeolian ground bass; it can be practically impossible to get out of Glass’ shadow (to say nothing of his fellow minimalist music pioneer Steve Reich’s). Eventually I remembered one particular Glass album, Aguas da Amazonia, commissioned and recorded by the Brazilian ensemble Uakti in the 1990s. I don’t really hold any of this against Mellits, who is a fine composer, and the PPG’s performance left nothing to be desired, but it did make this one the least interesting for me personally. Too bad it was the only piece that used the vibes; I would have particularly loved to hear some vibraphone in the Stout.

Closing the evening, the first prize winner of PPG’s call for scores, Mason Lee’s lovely six-sectioned color-suite Of Light, proved the most melodic of the five compositions, which is always refreshing to hear in percussion ensemble music. Among all the colorful modes and extended tertian harmonies, brief (and not so brief) melodies seemed to float around at several levels, with quick little melodic motives expanding into long, form-level melodic periods in the outer voices. Yet despite being actually more substantial as a composition than the others on the program, its originality was buried under the white noise of two hours’ worth of very little textural variety. I’ll have to hear it again in isolation.

In the end, this was essentially a marimba showcase, although the vibraphones did provide some timbral variety. Before this show, I would not have expected to enjoy an entire evening of marimba music — and I’m a marimba player myself. However, the variety of the compositions made the concert work as a whole, as did the instruments’ expansive beauty and power, the Old Church’s sympathetic acoustics, and the deft playing of the Portland Percussion Group. And I’m happy to report that my earplugs stayed in my pocket all the way to the end.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer and percussionist at Mount Hood Community College. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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