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Gerald Carpenter: UCSB Ensembles to Follow the Beat Through the Ages

The Percussion and Mallet Ensembles will perform Wednesday in Karl Geiringer Hall

UCSB professor Jon Nathan, a passionate promoter of jazz, percussion and new music in general, will direct a concert of the UCSB Percussion and Mallet Ensembles at 8 p.m. Wednesday in Karl Geiringer Hall (Music 1250).

Award-winning composer Christopher Rouse, like his music, meets his public with a smile.
Award-winning composer Christopher Rouse, like his music, meets his public with a smile. (Jeff Herman photo)

One might think it is a distinction without a difference, to separate “percussion ensembles” from “mallet ensembles” in this way — granted that all percussion instruments might not be played with mallets, surely any instrument played with a mallet is a percussion instrument — but Nathan no doubt will make this clear. This is definitely a concert of chamber music ensembles, in any case.

The program will include the Sinfonia from the Cantata “Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir”, BWV 29 by Johann Sebastian Bach, the Witch’s Dance, Opus 17, No. 2 by Charles MacDowell, Ku Ka Ilimoku, for percussion quartet, by Christopher Rouse and the Toccata for Percussion Instruments by Carol Chavez. First-year student Ben Donlon will perform the solo timpani role.

Presumably, you are aware of Bach — though his secret life as a percussion composer might be news. MacDowell keeps a low profile. Were I willing to subscribe to LinkedIn or to “upgrade” my browser — which would mean, in my case, buying a new computer — to gain access to his MySpace page, I would be able to tell you more about him than that he attended Reedley College and that he is a composer-producer at SecretJungle Productions in Fresno, but I won’t and I can’t.

Rouse, on the other hand, has a well-organized and easily navigable Web site from which I learned that he has won a Pulitzer Prize, multiple Grammys and was named 2009 Composer of the Year by Musical America.

Of Ku Ka Ilimoku, completed in 1978 on commission from the Syracuse Symphony Percussion Ensemble, Rouse writes: “In Hawaiian mythology, Ku is perhaps the most fundamental and important of gods, occupying a place similar to that of Zeus in Greek mythology or Odin in Norse legend. Ku is manifested in several forms: As Ku Ka Ilimoku, he represents the god of war. Thus this work for percussion ensemble is best viewed as a savage, propulsive war dance.”

Of course, Chavez is well-known as Mexico’s greatest composer to date, although we who had been paying attention during the tenure of Gisèle Ben Dor at the symphony are bound to stick up for Chavez’s friend and near contemporary, Silvestre Revueltas. Revueltas, who was born the same year as Chavez (1899), died 38 years before him, so while he spent many years in eclipse, his music, rediscovered, has a freshness and charm that Chavez’s more familiar tunes lack.

But age can’t wither nor custom stale the Toccata for Percussion Instruments (1942), which had its U.S. premiere in Cincinnati in 1950. For all that it makes use of Indian drums and bell-like metallic sounds, the first American critics found it “academic rather than primitive” — high praise at the time — and most approved of the work for its perfectionism. To that I must say: Bosh! The Toccata is music — damned exciting and involving music — not engineering.

Tickets to Wednesday’s concert are $15 for general admission and $7 for students, and will be available at the door.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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