miércoles, 23 de julio de 2008

Going down with a bang - Amsterdam Percussion Group in Altea

Percussion ensembles often try to raise the macho to an art form. Loudness and aggression often predominate, usually to the detriment of music. Obvious exceptions would be any Korean samulnori ensemble, where the macho is utterly enshrined, Gary Burton at his best, anything involving Steve Reich and, in the past, occasionally, Kodo. But often they seemed intent on beating the guts out of their Japanese temple drums. Now I must add the Amsterdam Percussion Group to the list of subtler performers, their concert in Palau Altea proving to be a complete joy.

Altea-born Josep Vicent fronts the group. For six years he was a percussionist with one of the world’s greatest orchestras, the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, and is now also a superb conductor in his own right. Anyone who attended his reading of Bernstein’s West Side Story Suite with the World Orchestra of Jeunesse Musicales in Villajoyosa and La Nucia earlier this year will testify to that. But Josep Vicent is also a stunningly accomplished performer and percussionist. Surely he is destined for significant international recognition.

The Amsterdam Percussion Group varied from three to six players. The three core members are all percussionists and, in Palau Altea, their battery of instruments was occasionally augmented by cello, guitar and bass guitar. The musical style is minimalist, the debt to Steve Reich explicit, but there was Gary Burton there as well in the jazz-style four mallet vibraphone techniques. Fundamental to Steve Reich’s musical personality was the idea of performance above recording and, surely, this philosophy was fundamental to everything offered by Josep Vicent’s group.

They started with what proved to be a weakness, apparently improvising a climactic modal interchange over a musique concrète tape. In the 1960s I might have been impressed. The cello piece that followed eventually became vibraphone and bass guitar, and again it left a lot to be desired in the inspiration box.

Then things came to life. The three percussionists played four tuned drums, offering a piece reminiscent of the first part of Steve Reich’s Drumming. It was superbly done, loud and musical, its rhythms complex yet immediately memorable.

Quiet then intervened in the form of a Piazzolla tango played by a quintet, again with vibes and marimba. This was followed by one of the evening’s true high points, a piece called Black Page by Frank Zappa. The first section’s difficult chromatic cello led on to a ferocious and supremely skilful unison doubling of Josep Vicent’s drums and the marimba of Mike Schaperclaus, before the piece made its minimal point in vast proportions.

The evening’s high point came next. It was the quietest piece of the night, played by the three percussionists, Josep, Mike and Arie de Boer, seated like kids at a party on the edge of the stage. Before them were three square bits of smooth plywood, each mounted on what appeared to be a couple of off cuts of two-by-one, amplified. With forehand and backhand strokes, finger prods, karate chops, slaps and taps, the three of them offered Table Music by Thierry de Mey, a percussive ballet for six hands.

A sextet reminiscent of Gary Burton’s early jazz followed and then a piece of pure Africa, a fast, explosive piece of Burundian drumming. A flamenco-style sextet with guitar completed the performance, which was greeted with a universal standing ovation, and deservedly so.

If you missed this one, there’s always the next time. They were exciting, subtle and musical, as well as loud. Josep Vicent will be back. He’s from Altea, after all.

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