Monday, October 24, 2011

Can't You Hear That Hot Marimba

The Princeton University Orchestra really let itself go for its first concert this year.

They programmed a marimba concerto for the first time in its history.

They had performed a concerto for cello and pizza delivery guy, a concerto for Norwegian Hardanger Fiddle, a concerto for electric guitar, and, for chrissakes, three viola concertos. But never the lowly, schlocky, beautiful marimba.

I had the pleasure of changing that this past weekend when I performed Ney Rosauro's Concerto for Marimba and String Orchestra on Friday and Saturday. For those of you who sadly missed out, you can find compressed, incriminating evidence here.
Before going on, I make the obligatory sign of the
 Society of Free Marimbists. Photo by Kaki Elgin.
It's been a long road for the marimba from novel exotica to concert hall respectability. In fact, the concept of a marimba concerto was nearly killed before anyone heard a note of one.

“A concertino for marimba and orchestra--at first blush, that might read like a manifestation of the silly season,” wrote New York Times critic Howard Taubman in April 1940. Taubman had just seen the premiere of a marimba concertino by composer Paul Creston, the first major solo work for the instrument. At the time, the marimba was a mere novelty instrument. Taubman’s readers were accustomed to hearing marimbas in vaudevillian acts or from Clair Omar Musser’s 100-person marimba orchestra. The concert hall was hardly a place for such shenanigans.

But instead of unleashing a barrage of snark, Taubman took Creston’s work seriously. He noted that the marimba “has its limitations as a solo instrument,” but said that the piece may not be the last of its kind, as Creston used the instrument as an effective vehicle for his ideas. With that lukewarm appraisal, the marimba began its slow invasion of the concert hall.

Seven decades later, marimba concertos hardly connote “silly season” when they show up on orchestra programs. There’s still a sense of novelty, but it comes from the newness of the repertoire rather than the instrument’s former associations. While Taubman was right in that Creston’s concertino was not the beginning and end of serious marimba repertoire, it did take quite a few decades for composers to really hear the instrument in a solo capacity.

Taubman was also right about the peculiar limitations of the instrument. Lacking breath or bow, a marimba note’s sustain is limited to reverb of the hall. Planks of wood don’t vibrate particular evenly either, leading to some gnarly overtones when notes are played together. And a performer can only change timbre significantly by picking up a whole new set of mallets. The leading modernist composers that came after Creston prized timbral variety over continuity. The marimba just sounded bland and dopey to them.

In the end, marimbists themselves built a repertoire from scratch. In Japan, Keiko Abe commissioned a series of ferocious solo pieces from her composer peers, and wrote her own aswell. In the United States, an amateur percussionist and aspiring composer Steve Reich got a few marimbas into his downtown New York City loft, and they became a signature part of his sound world. And in Germany, a transplanted Brazilian percussion student named Ney Rosauro worked through a piece of his own to play on his 1986 masters recital, at least if his broken wrist healed in time.

Rosauro’s wrist did heal, and he premiered the piece with the Manitowoc (base of Wisconsin’s thumb) Symphony in November 1986. Within just a few years, the piece became the marimba’s international calling card. In 1989, Rosauro received a letter from an up and coming Scottish percussion soloist named Evelyn Glennie. Glennie mentioned that she would be coming to Brazil on tour and was looking to play music by Brazilian composers. Rosauro sent her a copy of his marimba concerto and a year later received a letter from the BBC saying that they were planning to record a video of Glennie playing the piece in Brazil. That performance and a later studio recording with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1992 proved to be major hits. The concerto’s catchy melodies and infectious rhythmic drive proved irresistible to audiences around the world. With the Rosauro concerto in hand, Glennie took the music world (including Sesame Street) by storm.

Since 1991, Ney Rosauro’s marimba concerto has been performed well over 1,000 times by students and seasoned pros alike. A YouTube search for “Rosauro Marimba Concerto” nets over 400 videos, 50 more than for “Berg Violin Concerto” or “Philip Glass Violin Concerto,” for comparison. But more importantly, the piece’s success helped convince previously cynical composers of the unique capabilities of the instrument, and also symphony programmers of a marimba concerto’s appeal. The marimba figured heavily in Joseph Schwantner’s 1995 percussion concerto, written for the New York Philharmonic’s 150th Anniversary. Not to be outdone, the BBC Symphony commissioned a marimba-heavy duo percussion concerto from Stephen McNeff in 2010 for its 80th Anniversary.

As ever flashier and more difficult marimba concertos come out each year, one might think that Rosauro’s concerto will lose its place in the percussion repertory. But while styles have changed and techniques have advanced, the concerto’s musical directness presents substantial musical challenges. The rhythm is unrelenting – there are no breaks from grooving hard. The harmonies are unabashedly tonal – it’s impossible to hide missed notes. In the end, the piece asks the performer to do one of the most challenging things of all – play something simple. The soloist has to make the melodies sing without breath, make instrument-spanning runs sound like no effort was involved, and make the audience forget their preconceptions of the concert hall and want to dance.

So the audience at Richardson Auditorium this weekend didn't quite get their groove on, but I would still count this weekend as a great success for the marimba. I got numerous comments from friends and strangers alike, saying how thrilling it was and that they had never heard anything like it before. My hope is that these folks will help fill up Avery Fisher Hall or the Kimmel Center next time a percussion concerto rolls in, making programmers want to add another the year after, and then commission a new one from a badass composer...

And the world becomes a happier place.

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