Leah Rankin | Staff Writer
Percussionists live in an exciting time, said Michael Burritt, professor of percussion at the Eastman School of Music.
The repertoire is ever-changing, and a growing number of composers are experimenting with the wealth of sound and colors available in percussion ensembles.
After all, as far as percussionists are concerned, the world is their playground.
At 4 p.m. today in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall, members of the Music School Festival Orchestra percussion section will perform in a recital with their teacher, Burritt.
“It’s a great opportunity to show our versatility,” said student percussionist Mike Kemp. “We’re not just drummers; we’re musicians.”
Kemp, a graduate student at Cleveland State University, will perform along with three of his colleagues in today’s concert. Considering that percussionists only play intermittently in orchestral concerts, this recital is an opportunity to immerse themselves in challenging music.
The recital begins with a monumental 30-minute-long piece called “Threads” by Paul Lansky. Saul Green, a student at the Peabody Conservatory who played “Threads” two years ago, called it a “percussion collage.”
He noted that the work follows an operatic form with cycles of preludes, recitatives and choruses over the course of ten movements.
“It’s got a great balance of being an accessible piece for any audience, but it’s not too pedestrian,” Burritt said. “And there’s enough sophistication to keep the students interested.”
The work is somewhat influenced by the percussion pieces by composer John Cage and features makeshift instruments like sliced and tuned copper piping and even clay flower pots.
Like a string quartet, the piece is played without a conductor, making the students solely responsible for keeping the ensemble together.
The second half of the program features a marimba piece called “Twilight” by Tobias Brostrom and “Shadow Chasers,” a piece composed by Burritt himself in 1994. “Shadow Chasers” begins with an expanded improvisatory introduction that leads into an energetic symphony of rhythm.
Burritt leads the percussion ensemble through “Shadow Chasers” as he plays the marimba, and both Kemp and Green said having such an enthusiastic coach is like a breath of fresh air.
“It’s been the highlight of our summer to work with such a dedicated musician,” Green said.
“It’s like running in 100-degree humidity and then jumping into Chautauqua Lake,” Kemp added.
At school, both Kemp and Green are studying audition repertoire, fine-tuning every note to ace those stressful orchestral auditions. They said Burritt has reminded them that being a percussionist is not about a robotic sense of rhythm but about sensitive musicality.
Percussion chamber music is not steeped in history like string quartets. There are only a few decades’ worth of repertoire to choose from, but as this genre of music bustles ahead with new ideas for sounds and colors, Burritt and these MSFO students are glad to be a part of it.
“To play and study chamber music at a serious level like it is a Beethoven string quartet is very refreshing,” Green said.
Burritt believes challenging his students with the kinds of music on this program only feeds the energy and inspiration that moves back and forth between his students and him.
“We have a playground of instruments to use, and we’re bringing those together to create our own language,” he said.
Donations for this percussion recital benefit the Chautauqua Women’s Club Scholarship Fund.