gamelan sari pandhawa

Checking the Percussive Pulse of Eugene

Beta Percussion Institute and Gamelan Sari Pandhawa shows reveal promise and pitfalls of percussion performance

Story and photos by DANIEL HEILA

Percussion music and world music rose to prominence in America around the same time at the end of the last century. Recent concerts by the Eugene-based Beta Percussion International Institute (featured in this article by Gary Ferrington) and Sari Pandhawa Javanese gamelan proved the staying power of percussion’s cultural appeal—in both its contemporary and traditional forms—via performances by professional, amateur, and student musicians and a rarely seen multicultural theater art form. However, the concerts also contained troubling elements that threatened to weaken that appeal.

Michael Burritt and students perform at Beta Percussion Institute.

Since the early part of the twentieth century (starting with the works of such composers as John Cage and Edgard Varèse), percussion instruments have gradually escaped the confinement of accompaniment roles in Western art music. Yet prerecorded elements of the Beta Institute’s concerts seemed, at times, to force a self-conscious return to that role. And, as one of many hundreds of small community percussion ensembles throughout the country, Sari Pandhawa’s uninspired wayang kulit performance (shadow puppet theater) in downtown’s Kesey Square, was a warning of what can happen when such an organization loses its vitality.

The Rise of Percussion

Partly inspired by world music (gamelan and West African drumming), Steve Reich’s early 1970s compositions Clapping Music (the instrumentation is what you are imagining) and Drumming (for four pairs of tuned bongo drums, three marimbas, three glockenspiels, two female voices, whistling, and piccolo, whew!) helped propel percussion concert music into the milieu of pop music fans. Suddenly, percussion departments became exciting focal points of new music evolution in music schools across the country. The University of Oregon School of Music and Dance’s percussion area is one such locus, with department chair Pius Cheung directing the Beta Percussion International Institute.

Three concerts featured compositions by faculty members and prominent percussion performer/composers Michael Udow, Casey Cangelosi, Michael Burritt, and co-director Eriko Daimo, who performed solo, with each other, and with the students. Both faculty and students presented athletic, technically challenging works with aplomb. In several pieces (notably Casey Cangelosi’s performances of A Cool Gadget for Tambourine and Javier Alvarez’s Temazcal for maracas, Pius Cheung’s Nian 3, and student Jade Hail’s standout performance of Tchik by Nicolas Martynciow) the melding of technical gesture with idiomatic choreography created a dramatic unity. These musicians embody the music they make. However, the athleticism at times overshadowed the musicality, turning performances into mere feats of skill instead of artistic expressions—a fault of the composers more than the performers.

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MusicWatch Weekly: Mahlerian May

Mega-symphonies and more resound in Oregon concerts this week

Mahler’s symphonies seem like a closing chapter, a culmination of big, Romantic orchestral music. So large (and expensive!) are the forces required, that orchestras often save them for the end of the season. On Thursday, Francesco Lecce-Chong concludes his debut season with the Eugene Symphony with Symphony #5, along with Haydn’s delightful Symphony #88, still one of his most popular. Mahler wanted to pack a world into each of his symphonies, and this 1902 colossus traverses an astonishing emotional range, veering from funereal to violent to inebriated to anxious to ardent to a demented orchestral punch line.

Gustav Mahler.

In Portland, the Oregon Symphony closes its season this weekend at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall with Mahler’s relatively infrequently played 1905 seventh symphony (“A Lotta Night Music”), which does not need more cowbell. And next Tuesday, Corvallis OSU Symphony Orchestra plays his massive, summery third symphony at Oregon State University’s LaSells Stewart Center.

The excellent Delgani String Quartet also goes big in its season-ender Sunday afternoon and Tuesday night at Eugene’s Temple Beth Israel, and Monday night at Portland’s Old Church, adding a second violist (Elizabeth Freivogel of the award-winning Jupiter Quartet) so they can play a pair of too rarely heard (because they require that “extra” player) classical masterpieces: Mozart’s G Minor quintet and Brahms’s G major quintet.

Delgani Quartet adds a guest for its performances in Portland and Eugene.

In “Rituals” Friday night at N.E.W. Expressive Works, Portland/Seattle new music ensemble Sound of Late, one of the freshest additions to the Northwest’s burgeoning contemporary classical music scene, offers a pair of Portland premieres by Alvin Singleton and acclaimed Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, a composition by Chet Udell that uses motion-sensor electronics and horn, a 20th century classic by the late pioneering composer Pauline Oliveros, and the world premiere of a lament by promising Oregon composer Andrea Reinkemeyer, who just scored a major national award for emerging women composers.

Sophiko Simsive performs in Portland, Salem, and Hood River.

Speaking of Oregon composers, Portland’s Kenji Bunch contributed a new piece to Sophiko Simsive’s performances at Portland Piano Company (Wednesday), Salem Library (Thursday), and Hood River Middle School (Friday afternoon). The award-winning Georgian pianist’s free recital, part of Portland Piano International’s admirable Rising Star program that pairs new music by Oregon composers with emerging young touring pianists, also features sonatas by Mozart and Scriabin and Ravel’s marvelously modernized reinvention of an old dance form, The Waltz (La Valse) — which in turn inspired Bunch’s new Discothèque.

Speaking of Bunch, his father Ralph wrote the libretto for another new piece by still another Portland composer, John Vergin, which the latter will perform on piano with singers Alexis Hamilton and Brian Tierney Sunday night at Reed College’s Eliot Hall Chapel. Their song cycle Eleanora Andreevna takes its title from the name of Bunch’s Soviet-born wife, who escaped German bombing during World War II and grew up to become one of the nation’s top female computer scientists and to save Ralph’s life. They married when both were in their late 50s and she died in 2012.

Frank Martin didn’t even publish his 1922 Mass for 40 years, considering the devotional music too personal. But choirs have increasingly taken it up, including recent performances by Oregon Repertory Singers, Cantores in Ecclesia and now these Portland Symphonic Choir performances Friday and Saturday at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral led by PSC music director candidate Richard Sparks. When Sparks was with a Canadian choir, he also commissioned the other work on the program, Canadian composer Allan Bevan’s 2005 Good Friday meditation Nou goth sonne under wode, and now he’s bringing it here for its Portland premiere.

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