Playing with Percussion

By Steven Libowitz   |   June 18, 2024
The masterclasses are in full swing and harmony with Paul Merkelo and more giving the Fellows their insight and suggestions (courtesy photo)

Maybe the Music Academy of the West had some unanticipated smarts in scheduling the annual Percussion Fest for the first Saturday of the season, just four days into the 2024 Summer Festival. With the fellows flying in from San Francisco, Cleveland, Houston, and New York and driving up from L.A. they’d all have to arrive on campus early in order to create the kind of cohesiveness a percussion concert obliges. Not that the MAW fellows don’t normally exhibit exemplary forms of fellowship, but the timing called for quick camaraderie by necessity.

“We got in a few extra rehearsals last week,” said Michael Werner, a 1990 MAW alum and longtime faculty percussionist who is principal at the Seattle Symphony during the rest of the year. “But the tricky thing is all the different setups and the assortment of instruments the fellows can’t access at home… And unlike with a string quartet or a brass ensemble, many of the pieces we perform have the musicians sharing an instrument at the same time. There’s a lot of coordination.”

Michael Werner is gearing up for Percussion Fest – AKA cutting 2×4’s (courtesy photo)

Indeed, the June 15 Percussion Fest at Hahn Hall encompasses everything but the kitchen sink – Werner actually previously programmed a piece with that item involved – over the course of eight compositions, with nary a Steve Reich or John Cage among them. The concert kicks off with “The Infantryman” by Shaun Tilburg, the Phoenix Symphony principal who was actually a MAW fellow during Werner’s second year as a teaching artist. 

“It’s like a rudimental, groove-oriented snare drum solo, something very traditional,” Werner said. “But all three of the players share a bass drum, which gives it a twist.”

A very non-traditional piece follows in Viet Cuong’s “Sandbox,” which as the title suggests, involves a plywood box and sandpaper. 

“There’s a bunch of two-by-fours cut and tuned to specific pitches, and the players use a traditional mallet in one hand and sandpaper in the other,” he said, adding that he just finished cutting the boards earlier in the day. “Everything that they’re playing came from Home Depot or Ace Hardware. The way [the composer] is able to take something that you would never think of as a percussion instrument and make such a smart, creative, and clever piece is just great.” 

Werner called Ivan Trevino’s mid-program “Seesaw”– written for a guitar laid flat and played with fingers and chopsticks by two percussionists facing each other – “a palate cleanser” because of the instrument. 

Space precludes details about the other five works on the program, but suffice it to say they’ll provide both aural and visual pleasure for the audience. 

Both Werner and the five percussion fellows will be heard on chamber music concerts as well orchestral performances later in the summer – particularly in the challenging symphonies by Mahler (No. 6) and Stravinsky (Rite of Spring).

But when the summer ends, Paul Matthews, the studio’s only returning fellow for 2024, has an even more exciting endeavor to embark on come the fall, as in late May he won the audition to be principal percussionist of the Omaha Symphony in the city where he grew up. 

“It’s really something to be going back to my hometown to play in the symphony,” Matthews said. “My parents are very happy.”

Thursday, June 13: Baritone Navasard Hakobyan and vocal pianist Brian Cho, who claimed 2023’s Marilyn Horne 2023 Song Competition, re-team for their recital, with a world premiere, art songs, and Armenian folk songs on the program. See last week’s issue for an interview with Hakobyan. (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $40)

Jeremy Denk hosts his first masterclass this Friday with his Ives deep dive next Wednesday (photo by Shervin Lainez)

Friday, June 14: The first piano masterclass of the summer is led by none other than the masterful performer and pedagog Jeremy Denk, who will be one of the principal players in a series of the season’s special events. Catch his coaching style with a couple of talented fellows (3:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $10)… The Takács Quartet, the string quartet in residence who are on the cusp of their 50th season, kick off the guest/teaching artists performances with the first of their two concerts this week. The formidable foursome will perform quartets by Haydn and Ravel sandwiched around Nokuthula Ngwenyama’s “Flow,” commissioned by the Takács for their just-concluded 49th season. (7:30 pm; Lobero Theatre; $65)

Monday, June 17: Just one event on the calendar today, the Collaborative Piano masterclass, where veteran faculty member Jonathan Feldman focuses on the piano fellows who provide accompaniment for soloists on sonatas and other recital repertoire. (3:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $10).

Tuesday, June 18: The daytime brings masterclass kickoffs from longtime MAW teaching artists in clarinet (Richie Hawley), viola (Karen Dreyfus) and horn (Julie Landsman) at both Lehmann and Weinman Halls (1:30 & 3:30 pm; $10)… It’s still the fellows performing in the evening, too, as the participants in this summer’s String Quartet seminar (coached by the Takács) display the acumen in the annual showcase. The fellows-fired foursomes will play movements from some well-known works (Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” and Quartet No. 15; Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden”) as well as Carlos Simon’s “Warmth from Other Suns”and a few from further off the beaten path in Gabriella Smith’s “Carrot Revolution”and Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Quijotadas.” (7:30 pm; Hahn Hall; $40).

Wednesday, June 19: We normally wouldn’t devote much space to a masterclass, but today’s flute coaching/performance session prior to MAW stalwart Timothy Day’s arrival is led by Jim Walker, the flutist with exceptional experience vast and wide. Walker won the principal flute position in the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1977, but stayed only seven years after which he focused on the jazz quartet Free Flight in the 1980s, studio recording in the 1990s (in addition to hundreds of soundtracks, Walker collaborated with everyone from John Williams and Leonard Bernstein to Paul McCartney), and teaching – he’s a professor at both Colburn Conservatory and USC Thornton. The fellows – and you – are in for a fine time. (1:30 pm; Weinman Hall; $10). The afternoon also offers season-first masterclasses with MAW veterans Alan Stepansky (cello) and Paul Merkelo (trumpet)… Tonight brings the first Denk-driven special event of the summer as the MacArthur Fellow celebrates Charles Ives’ 150th birthday with a performance and discussion of one of the composer’s most highly regarded works, the “‘Concord’ Piano Sonata No. 2.” (7:30 pm; Lehmann Hall; $65 [sold out]).


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