I drove to Rochester this past weekend to hear Michael Burritt play the premier of his Duende Concerto for Percussion and Wind Ensemble with the Eastman School of Music Wind Ensemble conducted by Mark Scatterday. On the same program Nexus was to play Rituals for Five Percussionists and Orchestra by EllenTaffe Zwilich (2005), a work written for and recorded by them. The part I had played in this work was performed by guest artist John Beck.
Michael’s performance was on the last concert of Percussion Rochester. P.R. was a two day percussion blitz organized by Burritt, Bil Cahn and Kathleen Holt with the help of numerous sponsors. It was an exhibition of percussion instruments and music – all played at various venues in Rochester by extremely gifted students and professionals.
The Eastman School of Music has been irrevocably transformed by the arrival of Michael Burritt as its head of percussion. Michael is a virtuoso percussionist, teacher, clinician and composer. His enthusiasm for and dedication to teaching and performing is so powerful it could not possibly be ignored by anyone or any department in this venerable school.
I am particularly aware of the changes Michael has wrought because I played in the Rochester Philharmonic from 1966 – 68 when the orchestra was closely associated with the school. I met the percussion instructor William (Bill) Street and heard tales of his legendary tenure at the Eastman School. I met John Beck who was the timpanist of the Rochester Philharmonic and who took over the percussion department upon Street’s retirement. If memory serves, I was only the 2nd principal percussionist of the Rochester Philharmonic who had not graduated from the Eastman School. I believe the first was Jack Moore who preceded me. This was 45 years ago, I was in the bloom of my career and in awe of Bill Street, John Beck and their students.
The Rochester Philharmonic consisted of a core of professional players numbering about 35. All the principal players were teachers at the school and great players they were. Playing next to Beck for two years is a memory that will always endure in my mind. He was a gracious and helpful colleague who always enjoyed playing. If extra were players were needed, they came from the student body, assigned by their teachers. This created the first and only conflict in two of the most productive years I’ve ever spent in an orchestra. Street assigned different students to every concert. One day I told John Beck, “I want to select the extra players and keep them all year””. And so it came to pass.
I knew this system was good for Street’s students. But it wasn’t good for me, nor I thought, for the orchestra. If only for one year, I wanted to establish a relationship, with the extras who came to play in the orchestra. I had grown comfortable with Bill Cahn and his future wife Ruth McLean. I wanted them to play with the orchestra for as long as they were in school and, in fact, both joined the orchestra immediately after I left for Toronto. Of course, Bill came to be one of my colleagues in Nexus not too many years later. But I digress.
The standard of percussion at Eastman has always been high. The school’s first percussion ensemble was formed by John Beck, Street having no interest in the percussion ensemble genre. His interest was primarily in orchestra percussion. At the time, John Cage was known by many musicians, the pathfinder percussion soloist Max Neuhaus was performing and recording and far away in Europe the Strasbourg Percussion Ensemble was commissioning works from European composers. Nexus pushed further ahead by writing its own repertoire, collecting percussion instruments from other cultures and improvising. Generally speaking however, percussion ensemble music and the level of percussion playing in academia was from todays’ perspective, just emerging from the dark ages. The Renaissance came quickly.
As I sat listening to Michael percussion concerto I could not help but be amazed. A revolution had occurred at the Eastman School of Music.
And the change was also exemplified by the students. In the afternoon of our arrival I heard a concert in Kilbourn Hall given by Eastman percussion students and simply sat slack jawed as I heard them zoom their way through a program of works with precision and flexibility unthinkable 25 or 30 years ago, all without conductor, except for the Harrison Concerto for Violin and Percussion. Speaking with former colleagues and friends, I learned that the incoming freshman auditions were, to say the least, illuminating. Kids just out of high school were playing works PhD students couldn’t have played, or have thought to play, not too many years ago. On the whole, it has been percussion composers such as Leigh Stevens, Bob Becker, Gordon Stout and Michael Burritt who have been responsible for this incredible advance. Their compositions and teaching innovations have prodded new generations of exceptionally gifted percussionists. Now the question arises in my mind, “What can they do with all their skills? ”
After the student performance we took dinner across the street at Max’s. We ordered a dozen oysters on the half shell and fillet mignons, accompanying both with two bottles of 2004 Chateau Berliquet, Grand Cru St. Emilion. So satisfying.
Michael’s Concerto must have been a kick in the ass for any composer in attendance who has dreamed their way through a composition for percussion based on some ‘concept’. Duende, a work in one movement, begins with a virtuoso fanfare of tom-toms so fast and clear as to leave no doubt in the minds of listeners as to Michael’s secure artistry. It’s a classically designed work, thoroughly professional in its orchestration and structures. A few years ago I had heard his French horn concerto with percussion orchestra, but was not prepared for the maturity of Michael’s compositional skill. Duende is much more advanced. In response to Michael’s marimba playing, there were woodwind passages of surprising originality and beauty. From the very first note I was caught up by his energy, passion and when required, delicacy of touch. Duende is a work I’d love to hear again and again.
Duende is a spirit associated most commonly with the music of Spain. El duende prompted the famous Andalusian poet Frederico Garcia Lorca to write a now famous lecture about its affects on art and artists. Duende is a complex emotion, referencing among other things death and transcendence. To Lorca, its presence evoked a heightened sense of awareness, a spiritual wholeness. [1.] In Spanish and South American mythology, Duende is also an imp, a small, mischievous devil or sprite. Both definitions of Duende are applicable to the Burritt concerto, though I like to believe the shift to hand drums at the end, bongos and conga for the soloist and mounted tom toms for the ensemble percussionists, represented the Imp while the largest part of the work dealt with more spiritual aspects.
Whatever Michael’s intentions, his solo on bongos and conga was disconcerting. To my ears, the sounds of those instruments undeniably announce a kind of pop dance music from another culture. They rang falsely against the much larger body of his European Abstract Art Music. Well, picky, picky, but I cannot deny the shiver of surprise and disappointment I felt when I heard those sounds.[2.] The feeling dissipated when Michael was joined by his students in a tight knit exciting duet more suited to the work.
Michael and his accompaniment received a long and well deserved standing ovation. In response he played a short , lovely marimba solo.
The concert ended with a performance of Rituals, the Ellen Taffe Zwilich Concerto written for and played by Nexus. I knew this work pretty well because I had played it a number of times and recorded it with Nexus. Sitting out front was a wholly different and very impressive experience. Because of the clarity of Nexus and the superb playing of the Eastman student orchestra conducted by Neil Varon, I could grasp the scope of the work in its sonorities for the first time. It’s a terrific work, particularly in its contrast to other percussion concerti. The metal percussion, symbols and gongs, combined with string and woodwind chords, create clouds of gorgeous, complex overtones. Some of the movements seem to hang over the newly renovated Eastman theater, enveloping everyone. It is not a piece without rhythm but the overall impression is amorphous. The snare drum rhythms don’t actually propel the music but are simply layered into it. Bill Cahn’s tuned gongs, Becker’s soft tom-toms stand out, but otherwise the percussion instruments are a part of the orchestration, often making it into harmonic clouds. John Beck played my old part and the chimes which open and close the 2nd movement, always my favorite moments, were beautifully played.
I came away feeling the four movement work is one movement too long. Which movement should go? The removal of one would require a reshuffling of the remaining three. Maybe the last. Its’ ending was a problem when first written and after hearing it May 5, it is still a problem.
[2.]Joseph Schwantner concluded his Concerto No. 2 for Percussion Section, Timpani and Orchestra with a similar idea. His instruction for the drummers was to improvise and they didn’t know when enough was enough. With Burritt’s work, thoroughly composed, it was the device itself that troubled me.