On the Verge: Peabody Percussion Group

Even if you have a dread allergy to the marimba (as do I), you’d still conclude that the Peabody Percussion Group holds a smashing Sunday soiree at Griswold Hall Hell, even the four-year-old attention span of the kid sitting next to me stilled with rapture. And best of all, the price tag:FREE front row seats.

Yes, battered, dollar-saving twenty-or-thirty-somethings, while the Baltimore Opera Company may falter, Peabody stands ready to accommodate the empty wallet with top-of-the-line taste.

Director Robert van Sice plunged us into percussive descent: forty-five uninterrupted minutes of pure rhythmic indulgence. Three composers born after 1920: Toru Takemitsu, Mauricio Kagel, and Iannis Xenakis. Three works composed after 1982. The offering, part homage to his lately deceased friend, Mauricio, bucked mellifluous transcendence for constant surprise.

Van Sice warned: Takemitsu and Xenakis are Yin and Yang. Both composers heard Gamelan together in Bali back in 1972…but no gamelan hijinks here. They made a hearty musical sandwich with Mauricio Kagel’s fast-paced Buster Keaton-meets-Marx Brothers style for the pickle relish.

Takemitsu’s Rain Tree snuck up behind you like a light, humid wind at your back. The first high-pitched whispers came from two of the group’s acolytes, bearing crotales, tinging their bronze discs up the aisle, towards their destined trio: a vibraphone flanked by a pair of marimbas. (To the acolytes with adolescently-heavy footfalls; next time, boys, walk shoeless). But the rosewood of the marimba radiated against the vibe. Call it Zen, especially before Rrrrrr…..broke out.

Rrrrrr…..Kagel’s slapstick theater for 12 players put the group’s comedic timing on display. This odd sort of ode to Switzerland, used the R section of encyclopedias, musical and otherwise, as a springboard.

Gunshots ring out from the back of the hall. The first movement: Rim Shots & Co. hurtles my heart out of my chest after Takemitsu had calmed it so well. Railroad Drama begins innocuously: a trio of players suddenly appears onstage. One, standing, holds two sheets of paper between his hands at face-level. A girl crouches behind him. A third, behind her, even lower, plays the “caboose” in his bow-tie best. Blowing through paper starts the “steam.” The girl mans the whistle.

The train breaks down. When the caboose springs up, he produces two bamboo switches with a kung-fu-worthy bow of a butler. The former locomotive takes the switches and slaps the air with them in a fiery little dance, just missing his butler. Both topple. The girl falls into the large nearby drum. Oh but Rrrrr…… isn’t done.

Two musicians with congas start puttering away. The bald one dons on a moppy black wig before striking up. And then the cows come home.

Ranz der Vaches: All the while, two country bumpkins in rolled shirtsleeves and dungarees are sprawled out on the floor, center stage. Next to them: four fat glass jugs of rice. Finally, they arise, as the sounds of cows doing something rather unmentionable, and the Swiss herders chiding them, fill the hall. The bumpkins set to work…pouring the rice onto two fixed rows of cowbells (almglocken). A delightful patter, and yes, kids, try this at home – if you have a broom handy.

The thunderous finale: Xenakis’ Okhu. This progenitor of 21st century percussion, offered the kind of ritual cleansing you get from Spring’s first massive storm out on an open plain — fear of death trumped by desire for rain. This circle of power concentrated on bongos, djembes and a massive bass drum for each of three players. The deafening ram and roar blew out my left temple in the first minute. And well worth it — in the way that African drumming calls the soul upwards and outwards — primal elations welled up from inside. Rhythmic patterns halted and thummed, one drummer calling the other two back to center. Then fingetips on bongos calmed to a patter before a final exhortation from the great drum.

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4 Responses to “On the Verge: Peabody Percussion Group”

  1. Daily Breather says:

    Wow. Was this a one time event or does Peabody Percussion hold these free events regularly?

  2. sam says:

    So from what I can tell,the Peabody Percussion Ensemble is a once-a-year event. But free music abounds at Peabody. Check out the free NOON concerts on Thursdays enlivening the doldrums of January.

  3. Erik K. says:

    Ironically, I skipped this to audition a drummer — who never showed up. John Cage would have been happy.

    Thanks for bringing such life to classical music writing.

  4. Tomasz Kowalczyk says:

    Peabody Percussion Group concert takes place once a semester. Next concert will be in April.

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