Nexus hits the classics with a romantic spirit in Rockport

June 5, 2016 at 6:44 pm

By David Wright

The Nexus percussion ensemble performed Saturday night at the Rockport Music Festival.

The Nexus percussion ensemble performed Saturday night at the Rockport Music Festival.

 The percussion ensemble Nexus demonstrated again Saturday night why it is the Budapest String Quartet of music made by hitting things.

In the concert’s first half, Rockport’s Shalin Liu Performance Center vibrated to the classics—in this case, music composed not in central Europe about 1800, but in New York around 1970.  Among new-music enthusiasts, and particularly percussionists, trailblazing works by Steve Reich such as Music for Pieces of Wood, Piano Phase, and Drumming are spoken of in the reverent tones others reserve for Haydn’s Op. 76 quartets or Beethoven’s “Razumovskys.”

And there those three pieces were on Saturday’s program, performed by four veteran musicians—Bob Becker, Russell Hartenberger, Bill Cahn, and Garry Kvistad–whose lifelong association has been not just with a tradition but with the composer himself.

If this 35-year-old chamber music festival was to host the first all-percussion concert in its history, as its artistic director David Deveau said in his opening remarks, this was certainly the way to do it.

During the second half, having established its credentials in the classics, the foursome followed concert-program tradition by moving on to Romanticism—the percussion version, meaning the gentle ballads of the undefinable New York street personality known as Moondog, and the 1920s jazz stylings of xylophone virtuoso George Hamilton Green.

But before the players could get to all those large-framed xylophones and metallophones that festooned the stage, their resonator tubes hanging down like inverted organ pipes, there was this matter of minimalism.  The term means what it says; a few wood or metal bars or a row of small drums, and something to strike them with, were all it took for composer Reich to create game-changing new music. 

The players stood in a row facing the audience and used claves (wood sticks) to weave a four-voice rhythmic fugue in Music for Pieces of Wood.  Joining them as timekeeper was a colleague, Maria Finkelmeier, who laid down a rock-steady beat that might be called metronomic, except that metronomes don’t visibly enjoy what they’re doing, as Finkelmeier did. 

Reich’s Piano Phase for two pianos was heard Saturday in Garry Kvistad’s two-player percussion arrangement, retitled Mallet Phase.  A crucial difference between the two versions was that the percussion instruments were tuned according to “just intonation,” as opposed to the tempered scale that pianos use.  (This tuning system accounts for the uncanny sound of many tubular wind chimes.)

As Kvistad and Becker moved from wood bars to metal ones, the crisp interlocking rhythms blended in a shimmer of high overtones, a musical mandala.  Despite the rapid tempo and ever-shifting rhythms, a mood of serenity settled over the room, enhanced by the pink-and-gold Rockport harbor sunset visible through the stage’s glass rear wall.

The single row of small drums resembling bongos required much retuning before the performance of Part I of Drumming, thanks to Rockport’s marine atmosphere.  But when the performance got under way, it was full speed ahead as two, then three, then all four players stepped up to the drum row to make intricate rhythmic patterns blossom from a core motive. 

Along the way, the musicians coaxed a subtle variety of dynamics and timbres from the little drums, but near the end they flipped their mallets over to play with the stick end, touching off a dense burst of explosive sounds that resembled nothing so much as the fortissimo climax of a fireworks show. 

For decades during the mid-20th century, the New York musician Louis T. Hardin, who called himself Moondog, could be seen at his favorite corner of Sixth Avenue and 53rd Street, wearing a horned Viking helmet and surrounded by small musical instruments of his own invention, regaling passers-by with songs, anecdotes, and his philosophy of life.

Moondog’s personality and his deceptively simple compositions attracted the attention of musicians as diverse as composers Reich and Philip Glass and New York Philharmonic music director Artur Rodzinski.  

The five selections on Saturday’s program, sensitively arranged in percussion colors ranging from the moony tinkle of the presumed self-portrait “Viking 1” to the soft murmur of the lullaby-like “Pastoral,” revealed a gentle, loopy spirit whose music had the knowing innocence of an Erik Satie or Virgil Thomson, with repeating riffs that suggested a kind of minimalism-before-minimalism.

To close the set, Finkelmeier rejoined the group to sing the charming children’s song “I’m This, I’m That,” whose plain couplets (“I’m hot, I’m cold./I’m young, I’m old.”) seemed to take on more than their simple meaning as the song went on. 

Another founding father of percussion music, less well known today then Steve Reich but a celebrity recording artist in his own time (the 1920s and after), was George Hamilton Green, whose innovations in xylophone technique and compositions full of wit and fire made him something like the Franz Liszt of his instrument.

As often happens, Saturday night’s live re-creation of music previously known only through old low-fidelity recordings came as a revelation.  While remaining as modest in demeanor as he and his colleagues had been all evening, Bob Becker at the xylophone left no doubt what the excitement at a Green performance had been all about.

In between spectacular mallet-crossing riffs too fast for the naked eye, Becker teased with sudden diminuendos and urged with fervent tremolos.   The arrangements, mostly Becker’s own, suggested the original band or guitar accompaniments, or sometimes the coin-operated player pianos of long ago. His colleagues supported him expertly, bringing out an inner voice here and there to enrich the texture.

Typically for popular music of the period, a leisurely waltz rhythm underlay all four Green selections, from the dazzling “Caprice Valsante” and “Castle Valse Classique” (based on Dvořák’s famous Humoresque—in 3/4 time!) to the sentimental ballads “Just a Kiss from You” and “Alabama Moon,” either of which would make the perfect accompaniment to a romantic scene in a Harold Lloyd movie. 

Since no encores were given, it was the tender strains of “Alabama Moon” that warmed the heart after the concert and offered some protection from the damp chill of an early-June Rockport evening.  Not bad for an evening of things being hit.

The next presentation of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival will be the Borromeo String Quartet playing Bach, Beethoven, and (with pianist Donald Berman) the world premiere of a new work by Elena Ruehr, 8 p.m. Thursday at Shalin Liu Performance Center, 35 Main Street, Rockport.; 978-546-7391.


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