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Sunday, March 26, 2006
A Surge of Percussion from Houston
Surge by Rob Smith; Houston Strokes by Donald Grantham; Melos by Blake Wilkins; Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams, arranged by Blake Wilkins, Raptures of Undream by Bruce Hamilton; At the Dawn of War by Kevin Erickson
The University of Houston Percussion Ensemble
Blake Wilkins, Director

The University of Houston Percussion Ensemble has been in residence at the university’s Moore School of Music since 1997, when Blake Wilkins joined the faculty and founded the group. As their Albany recording Surge indicates, they’ve grown into a crackerjack ensemble, capable of handling a wide range of repertoire. Three of the works (by Smith, Grantham, and Erickson) were written specifically for the group; the disc is rounded out by two other recently composed pieces for percussion ensemble as well as a quirky, but surprisingly effective, arrangement of a repertory staple by Ralph Vaughan Williams, originally written for string orchestra.

Wilkins clearly favors pitched percussion, both in his selection of repertoire and in his own music, and the Houston group excels at creating clear textures and fluid counterpoint. Rob Smith also teaches at Moore School of Music. His composition Surge is a brisk post-minimal work, fueled by a propulsive, syncopated ostinato and adorned with cymbal splashes and pulsating vibraphone and marimba chords. It operates at a fairly relentless pace, but Smith provides abundant variety within this fast tempo spectrum by employing frequent metric shifts; he ratchets up the intensity to breakneck speed by the work’s conclusion.

Donald Grantham teaches at the University of Texas at Austin; with Kent Kennan, he co-authored The Technique of Orchestration. Appropriately, his Houston Strokes is an attractively scored four movement work; it highlights the keyboard instruments in the Houston percussion group. The first movement develops short, pan-tonal melodic figures, juxtaposing boisterous tutti with swirling counterpoint. The second movement combines shimmering chordal writing with a playful, syncopated theme. The minor-tinged third movement features marimbas in a chorale-like presentation. A thunderous rattle of triangle and chimes ushers in the final movement, an exuberant moto perpetuo.

Wilkins’ Melos is an extended meditation with long arching melodies. Once again, keyboard instruments are prominent, especially those with bell-like sonorities. The piece employs a lush harmonic palette and develops at a gradual but well-paced clip. The slow boil pays off with a striking finale of cascading chimes and keyboard tremolos, followed by a long denouement that brings the work to a gentle close.

Perhaps one wouldn’t think that an arrangement of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, a piece in which antiphonal string writing plays such an intrinsic role, would work well for percussion ensemble. Wilkins wisely truncates the score, presenting the most familiar thematic material in a clever arrangement. True, it’s a quirky choice for transcription – keyboard percussion can never replicate the sustain or tone of a string ensemble – but an imaginative deployment of instruments causes it to sound more effective than one expects and, for a moment, to forget those long violin lines and endlessly held chords.

Not all of the works on the CD are for pitched percussion. Raptures of Undream, by Bruce Hamilton, who teaches at Western Washington University, is for six performers, each playing a floor tom and cymbal. It is an inventive postmodern variant on the drum corps, with vigorous tutti passages and intricate contrapuntal interplay. The Houston performers are to be commended for their tight performance of the work.

Kevin Erickson’s At the Dawn of War makes use of suitably martial drumming underneath portentous ostinato passages. On top of the “drums of doom” are fleetly rendered keyboard solos, splashes of chimes and crashing cymbals. Between the bellicose refrains, Erickson explores ruminative textural writing in several interludes. There are some appealing dramatically scored passages along the way, but I wasn’t sold on the ending; a cheerful major-key turn about 3/4 of the way through seems overly triumphal given the bleakness of the surrounding subject matter and preceding material.

Still, Wilkins and the University of Houston Percussion Ensemble deserve kudos for their work on Surge. They make a compelling case for the percussion ensemble as a flexible, versatile, and expressive entity.


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