The Burchfield Penney Art Center’s Tower Auditorium is a gem of an intimate theater perfectly suited for a small-scale love-fest honoring one of Western New York’s finest musicians – Jan Williams – and celebrating his 75th birthday with a program featuring percussion works by major league modern composers. It was the perfect way to salute a man whose roles as a percussionist, teacher, and conductor influenced an astonishing number of musicians and composers, some of whom were featured wishing Williams a happy birthday in a video presentation midway through the concert.
The evening began with Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music,” a brief piece of music involving two pairs of hands wending their way through rhythmic patterns.
It was a showpiece for percussive effects using only the human body and ably performed by Gary Kvistad and Allen Otte – aka the Blackearth Percussion Group.
Next up was Earle Brown’s “c. 1970” sextet, which mixed percussion, “prepared” piano, trumpet, flute and electrified cello and guitar.
The players were all spaced along the front of the stage instead of being grouped in one spot, an arrangement that spread the sounds across the venue, heralding a sonic tactic that would be repeated at various points within the concert.
Morton Feldman’s oeuvre was the source for two of the works heard during the evening. There was “The King of Denmark” performed by Tom Kolor, which placed the percussionist in a circular cocoon of instruments, and the aptly named “A Very Short Trumpet Piece,” which featured trumpeter Jon Nelson playing from the back of the hall.
John Cage wrote a number of pieces featuring percussive elements and some of those received performances, too. The first and fourth movements from Cage’s “Amores” bracketed Allen Otte’s brief musical setting of a poem by Williams.
The “prepared” piano heard in this score was set up to sound almost like part of an Indonesian gamelan orchestra, with metallic elements placed on and around the piano strings changing the way the instrument sounded.
The highlight of the evening, however, was the finale, Edgar Varese’s “Ionisation” – a work that Williams directed and referred to as “arguably the seminal work for percussion ensemble.”
In the space of roughly five minutes, a dozen percussionists and one pianist (Amy Williams, the honoree’s daughter) delivered a well orchestrated showpiece that displayed what percussive orchestration was capable of.
The audience ate it all up and, when the last instrumental sounds faded into the ether, the calls for Williams to emerge and take his bows were frequent and well deserved.