Anyone who stumbled into Chapin Hall by accident on Sunday evening would have been surprised by the array of instruments on the stage. There was not a cello or bassoon to be seen, but the stage was filled with percussion instruments of all shapes and sizes, all to be used by the Williams Percussion Ensemble’s concert.
There are two easy traps to fall into when programming a percussion concert, monotony (four pieces for snare drum solo), and triteness (Beethoven’s 5th arranged for marimba band). Under the direction of Scott Stacey, the Williams Percussion Ensemble avoided both of these pitfalls and delivered an enjoyable performance in front of an enthusiastic, if small, audience.
The concert began with two percussionists on either side of the stage and a percussionist behind the audience on each side of the hall. Thus situated, they played Rich Holly’s “Battlestations II.” The piece was played mostly on unpitched percussion, but was rhythmically complex, featuring interplay between duplet and triplet figures.
The concert featured several arrangements of pieces originally composed for other ensembles. The first of these was a Renaissance motet by Orlando Lassus, a piece originally written for voices a cappella but later arranged for marimba.
Perhaps the most interesting piece on the program was Robert Moran’s “Bombardments No. 2,” written in 1966. Instead of traditional notation, it was notated on a graphical score that gave an “impression” of the piece rather than specifying each note precisely. The score, which Stacey showed the audience, contained a number of short fragments in non-standard notation. Although the instrumentation of the ensemble was specified, each player could choose which fragment to play and how to play it based on his own interpretation of the score. This piece was an interesting experiment in chance music, but it lacked a feeling of continuity and cohesiveness.
The next piece found the players back at the marimbas for an arrangement of a piano rag for xylophones and marimbas. Stacey noted that in the early days of recordings on wax cylinders, the xylophone was a favorite instrument to record because its sound could be reproduced faithfully. This performance was energetic, although somewhat frenzied.
The next piece pushed the boundaries of what we might classify as percussion instruments. “Syncopate My Afuche,” by Michael Aukofer, had the members of the ensemble clapping their hands, stomping their feet, playing pocket-change, and banging on cups. The result was interesting and enjoyable, and the piece had a clear form and strong sense of direction.
The concert closed with two pieces traditionally performed on non-western percussion instruments. The first, from the Ewe tribe of Ghana, was a celebratory piece and included Stacey joining the ensemble on the tom-tom.
The final piece was a traditional piece from the Caribbean, originally played on a sort of marimba made of wooden slats laid over a trench and played with sticks. In this instance they were played on Western marimbas.
Neither of these pieces was originally notated, but instead each was picked up by the musicians through hearing the piece. The transcriptions were notated, and one wonders whether the original spontaneity and room for variation were lost in writing down the piece explicitly. Nonetheless, they provided an energetic end to a varied and interesting concert.