UConn Percussion Ensemble presents an impressive program of quartet music

The ensemble had their concert at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, April 4, in von der Mehden Recital Hall. The program featured five pieces, four of which were written for percussion quartet.

For each piece, the performers divided into their respective smaller ensembles and moved around the stage to different arrangements of instruments and equipment. UConn instructor of percussion Robert McEwan organized and directed the event.

“There is an awful lot of personal responsibility involved in this kind of music making, as opposed to a percussion orchestra kind of arrangement,” McEwan said.

The first piece was Gareth Farr’s “Little Sea Gongs,” played by Jake Bavarsky, Jia Cai, Cassidy Chapman and Tristan Pool. The piece consisted of four drums and did not include any pitched percussion. The rhythms were fast and dancelike, with heavy, powerful bass sound. Farr’s work derives its inspiration from the South Pacific Māori rhythms of New Zealand and Australia.

The second piece was Owen Clayton Condon’s “Fractalia.” This time, a completely different quartet consisting of Shaun Cayabyab, Steven McArdle, Michael Melnik and Ethan Smith took to the stage. This performance, unlike the first, featured pitched percussion. McEwan described it as “a very beautiful confluence of minimalistic marimba with some rhythmic tom-toms,” and “calm yet energetic at the same time.”

“I really liked the contrasting timbres from the ensemble,” said Rex Sturdevant, an eighth semester music education major who also is a member of the percussion studio. “I liked the depth of the tom-toms that really kind of juxtaposed with the fast-moving marimba playing.”

The third piece, “Shifty” by Dennis DeSantis, was a deceptively simple composition. Cayabyab stayed on stage and was joined by Chapman, Justin Clapis and Smith.

The seemingly complex interaction of the parts was all based around almost entirely the same rhythmic material, which then “shifts” through itself and the players of the ensemble. The result was an intricate array of metric modulations, constantly changing – not unlike the tides at sea.

The fourth piece was Jason Treuting’s “Extremes,” played by Clapis, McArdle, Melnik, and Claire Pawlewitz. McEwan explained the story behind his decision to put it on the program.

“I thought it was a really cool piece,” McEwan said. “I’d heard it a few times. I thought it was really neat, so I said to myself, ‘We’re going to buy this and put this on in one of the shows.’ And so I ordered the music and it came in a download, and so I opened it up and I looked at the music and it was just a bunch of words. It was just a bunch of like, four city names. It was Denver, Atlanta, Burlington, and… some place in North Carolina?”

“Brooklyn,” one of the players said.

“Oh, Brooklyn, oh, okay, well, whatever. It was four different American cities – just the names of the cities – and then some, like, vague instructions about what you might do with it.

“So, I called the publisher and I said, ‘Thanks for the info, but I was looking for the music to this thing. And they called me back and said, ‘That is the music.’ And so I gave it to Steve McArdle, and I said, ‘Steve, make some sense of this.’ And he did.”

For the finale of the program, all of the performers took the stage together, this time with McEwan at their side, to perform John Bergamo’s “Piru Bole.” Based on Northern Indian “Tala” drumming, the piece featured a number of “syllables,” played by percussion as if to imitate their vocal sound.

There is an awful lot of personal responsibility involved in this kind of music making, as opposed to a percussion orchestra kind of arrangement
— UConn instructor of percussion Robert McEwan

“This is how the music is transmitted from teacher to student in this culture,” said McEwan. “They don’t write music down, usually. It’s a complete oral tradition. Every single syllable that we use here has a corresponding timbre on these drums.”

During the performance, each student played a solo on a different drum while his or her peers and teacher accompanied them. This final showing of the UConn Percussion Ensemble rounded out the evening and gave every member a chance to be heard.

“I thought the concert as a whole really showed the ensemble’s chamber music skills, and it showed a lot of independence in preparing each of the four pieces,” Sturdevant said.


Brian Roach is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus.  He can be reached via email at brian.roach@uconn.edu.