Ventura County Star, California
By Charles Levin Thursday, June 7, 2007
Ojai Music Festival When: June 7-10
When the ensemble NEXUS formed in 1971, a stage filled with nothing but drums, xylophones and more exotic percussion fare was an anomaly, sometimes regarded as a novelty and often confined to music conservatories. That reality has changed. The percussion world now boasts superstars like Evelyn Glennie and Stomu Yamashta. Several professional ensembles such as So Percussion appear at the world’s best known concert halls. Minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Broadway productions like “Stomp” have broadened the appeal of percussion, luring fans of jazz and popular music while breaking down barriers for audiences unaccustomed to such sounds. “And NEXUS has been the pioneer,” said Thomas Morris, artistic director of the 61st annual Ojai Music Festival. “It is the group that has pioneered through all of this time.”
Morris, a conservatory-trained percussionist who managed world-class orchestras for a living, selected NEXUS for this year’s four-day festival, which opens today and runs through Sunday. Morris and festival music director Pierre-Laurent Aimard settled on piano and percussion as the overriding theme for this year’s concerts, which will feature such diverse acts as the Bugallo-Williams piano duo, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Morris knew the Toronto-based NEXUS quintet featuring Bob Becker, Bill Cahn, Robin Engelman, Russell Hartenberger and Garry Kvistaad was a logical choice for the percussion role. “I introduced them to Aimard, and he thought it was perfect,” Morris said.
For the average listener who still thinks of a percussionist as the player who waits half a symphony to strike a lone triangle, a NEXUS concert will dispel those notions. True, percussion is defined as the sound, vibration or shock caused by striking two bodies (a concept with prehistoric roots). But nowadays, the act extends to shaking, scraping, bouncing or bowing (as in sliding bass violin bows across the edges of vibraphone bars for angelic sounds).
On Sunday morning, the festival turns Libbey Bowl over to NEXUS, which will take listeners on a musical journey, spanning centuries, cultures and continents. The concert includes Reich’s “Music for Pieces of Wood,” Cahn’s “The Birds” (featuring bird whistles from around the globe), Hartenberger’s “Telisi Odyssey” (a hybrid of African and Indian rhythms), three classic military drum solos, traditional drumming of the Ewe-speaking people of Ghana and a medley of early 20th-century popular tunes arranged for xylophone soloist and marimba choir.
Before Sunday’s show, NEXUS will be spotlighted during an 8 p.m. Friday concert at Libbey Bowl. The ensemble will help perform Bartok’s Sonata for Two Piano and Two Percussion (but with four percussionists for this performance) as well as Stravinsky’s “Les Noces” and the American premiere of Peter Etvs’ “Chinese Opera.” NEXUS also hosts two free events: a creative music workshop on Saturday from 3 to 4 p.m. and a screening later that night of the 1926 Japanese silent film, “A Page of Madness.” Cahn composed a soundtrack for the film and NEXUS will perform it live.
Such versatility is the stock in trade for classical percussionists, who are trained from day one to play a wide variety of musical styles, Engelman, a NEXUS founding member, said. “When NEXUS began to build its repertoire, the members of the group brought the music that interested them,” Engelman said in a phone interview from his home in Toronto. “Everybody had a different interest, and our concerts reflect that.” That said, Beethoven string quartets still resonate more with classical music audiences than Amadeo Roldan’s “Ritmicas V and VI” (1930), widely considered the first compositions devoted exclusively to percussion instruments.
But the repertoire grew in robust leaps and bounds. Around the same time as Roldan, Edgard Varese offered up “Ionisation,” a masterwork for 13 players, including a lion’s roar and siren. (The piece was said to have galvanized Frank Zappa, who also claimed Stravinsky as a critical influence.) Through the 1930s and 1940s, John Cage, Henry Cowell and Lou Harrison delved into the world of “found object” percussion. Influenced by the sounds of Asia and breaking from the Eurocentric tradition, they drew liberally from Indonesian gamelan music, but using auto brake drums and Chinese rice bowls with gongs and temple blocks.
As the writing evolved, boundaries of just what defined percussion instruments or even music faded. “They said that noise could be music,” Engelman said of those seminal writers. College music departments suddenly became the petri dish for percussion-centric compositions. At Manhattan School of Music in the 1950s, the late Paul Price recorded Cage’s works and required his students to take percussion ensemble, said Piru resident John Bergamo, former Price student of that era and retired director of percussion studies at California Institute of the Arts.
Critics have roundly praised NEXUS. Audiences laud the group, too, but some concertgoers still regard such repertoire as more novelty than serious fare, Engelman said. Percussion ensembles still haven’t embedded themselves in the public consciousness like string quartets, Morris offered.
“It’s hard for a music lover to realize what they are going to,” Morris said. “It’s something that takes some explanation. It’s not just people playing the drums. It’s really a sonic, aural, visual theatrical experience.”