In With a Bang 

Belmont professor Christopher Norton highlights myriad possibilities of percussion with promising student concert

Belmont professor Christopher Norton highlights myriad possibilities of percussion with promising student concert

Belmont Percussion Ensemble

7:30 p.m. Nov. 25

Massey Concert Hall, Belmont University

For information, call 460-6408

Christopher Norton first caught my ear in 2001 when he, along with the world-renowned percussion quintet Nexus, performed with the Nashville Chamber Orchestra. Before that, percussion for me had simply been a member, and not a major one, of a larger musical troupe: Timpani are effective dramatic underlinings in Richard Strauss and Johannes Brahms; they do not headline the show.

But in that NCO performance, Norton and Nexus were first-among-equals with the orchestra in delivering a new commission by composer Conni Ellisor. In it the familiar sonorities of the orchestra revolved around, and were interpenetrated by, a wide range of sounds produced by a wide range of instruments, from xylophones and marimbas and drums to hanging glass bottles that might have been culled from a trash heap. I had never imagined such potential.

Norton explains that my experience is typical. “Though the beginnings are traced back to the 1920s, even 50 years ago hardly anybody knew about percussion ensembles,” he says. “In fact, Nexus is really pretty much where it all begins.” The Nexus quintet delivered their first performance in 1971. They have been together ever since, steeping themselves in musical traditions from all over the world and inspiring emulators. Even so, there’s still not much repertory for percussion ensembles, though it’s growing fast. “It’s exciting, but it’s really a challenge,” Norton says. “A lot is happening now, and for some of it, there’s no standard way to write it down. A composer often has to make up his own system, and players just have to figure it out.” With all that, this kind of music is burgeoning.

Norton as performer shows why. Last March, he did a Camerata Musicale performance in the Belmont Mansion. By then, he had moved from Western Kentucky University, where he had been for 14 years, to become percussion wizard at Belmont University’s school of music. In the mansion’s congenial grand salon, he and two other performers showed again how much can be accomplished by hitting things with sticks. As sound and as spectacle, the show was first-rate. And its brilliance was burnished by the poise, grace and evident delight with which Norton does what he does.

This Monday he’ll do it again, with more than a dozen Belmont students and three faculty colleagues. This time he is not performer but pedagogue: In this concert, undergraduate and graduate percussion students will be the main performers. If Norton were not at the head of it, the concert might not bear mentioning, since such performances are essentially training camps for apprentice musicians: Belmont music students have to attend a certain number of convocations each year. But some convocation performances are quite good, and rehearsals promise this will be one of them.

First of all, this music is a new breed of sound—a configuration of sonorities mostly so far unheard. The possibilities for combination are intoxicating: Anything that can be struck or scraped or shaken becomes a musical instrument. Mostly the chosen instruments are struck—with the hand, with a stick, with a mallet—and the resulting sound begins with a sharp impulse. The sound may die almost instantly, as when two drumsticks are whacked together; or it may last a while, as when cymbals are clanged or a gong is banged. But the shared defining element is that initial definite pulse.

Some percussive pulses may be united with pitches that can be strung into tunes, as with xylophones and marimbas. But even some drums are tuned—and not only timpani. For instance, congas may be tuned, and may be struck in various ways so as to vary their utterance. It’s this marriage of pulse and pitch that makes percussion ensembles unique.

For this performance, instruments are grouped into geometric arrangements Norton calls “pods,” and the players become a de facto corps of dancers executing an elaborate choreography as they move among an array of instruments. Deliberately or not, they emblematize a human society working together for the common good.

Next Monday’s choreography will showcase some dozen members of the Belmont undergraduate percussion ensemble, some half-dozen members of the graduate percussion ensemble, and three Belmont faculty members—Brad Fullen, Todd London and Chester Thompson. Norton will wave the wizard’s wand. The program as listed offers nine works, ranging from “Groovalicious,” composed and directed by sophomore Dave Madeira, to “Portico,” a subtle and complex composition by Thomas Gauger, longtime percussionist with the Boston Symphony. Madeira’s piece is indeed groovy and delicious; following a marching drum-line opening number, it gets the evening off to a wittily playful start. Gauger’s “Portico” makes a lovely finale.

In between, Norton says, “the players try to segue expeditiously from one piece to the next.” The chosen sequence makes an effective whole. “Slap Shift,” by Arizona State University professor J.B. Smith, features six players, each with a single conga drum. Each drum produces three different tones that are combined into three distinctive melodic lines in shifting patterns of metric modulation.

Australian composer Nigel Westlake gives a workout to four graduate ensemble marimbists in something he calls “Omphalo Centric Lecture.” The grads also deliver “Sharpened Stick,” by Brett William Dietz, scored for five multi-percussion setups. This is a brilliantly complex high-energy exercise in virtuosity.

“Log Cabin Blues” is a ragtime piece by George Hamilton Green (1893-1970), called by critic Frederick Fairchild “one of history’s greatest xylophone players.” This selection is done here in an arrangement by Nexus founding member Bob Becker for solo xylophone backed by four marimbists sharing two marimbas. The menu also includes one movement from “Trio per Uno” by Bulgarian composer/percussionist Nebjosa Zibkovic, scored for three drummers using snares and tom-toms. A German critic has rightly called Zibkovic a “composing virtuoso” comparable to Paganini, Chopin and Liszt.

From Madeira to Gauger, this program offers a wide range of musics rarely heard alone, much less together—and all the composers except Green are still very much alive. The music is too. And though this evening’s instrumentalists are mostly young, they fit that lively music into mighty attractive garb.

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