Percussion ensemble, Dan River Girls showcase night of rhythm at UNCSA

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UNCSA percussion
UNCSA's high school percussion ensemble performs "Head Talk." (photo by Spencer KM Brown)

The conductor stood at the edge of the stage in front of a line of drum sets. So far in the night’s performance, the UNCSA percussion ensemble performed more classical and academic pieces, giving director John Beck the need to explain the next piece’s title “In the Pocket” to the audience; a common term used in jazz, hip hop and funk, referencing the way a drummer’s timing fits precisely into the beat of the song with a smooth and grooving feel.

Four soloist drummers of UNCSA’s high school percussion ensemble sat down at the kits and performed composer John H. Beck’s 1999 arrangement for drum set. The call-and-response piece showed the soloist’s chops on drum set and culminated with a smooth rendition of the difficult and renowned snare pattern played by drummer Steve Gadd for Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.”

The performance on April 11 at Watson Hall on UNCSA’s campus provided many graduating students in the ensemble with the opportunity to perform solo pieces for an audience in preparation for senior recitals, which take place in coming weeks.

In the warm honey glow of lights that illuminated the stained wood of marimbas and congas and the polished chrome of snare drums, the evening’s performance opened with composer Lou Harrison’s Canticle no. 3, a piece of music written in 1941 intended to be performed by five percussionists on a variety of instruments. The performers stood stolidly with mallets and sticks in hand awaiting the conductor’s signal and with an accipitral sway of arms, Beck called the instruments to life. In the intended absence of stringed instruments, all melodies were held down and alternated among the percussionists, and bursts of rhythm and pulsing vibrations echoed out into the hall. The members of the ensemble moved constantly between bells, woodblocks, marimbas and drums as the famous piece was performed in all of its jarring and dissonant charm. Do to the technical precision and control required of the arrangement, director Beck’s conducting gave timing to all the performers and would be one of the only movements of the evening that required his role as traditional conductor.

Later in the evening, just before intermission, the night’s focus of percussive music was augmented by the popular Triad bluegrass trio Dan River Girls, who accompanied soloist Brandon Judkins during a performance of flapper-era composer George Hamilton Green’s “Chromatic Foxtrot.” As Judkins stood behind the xylophone, sisters Fiona, Eilidh and Jessie Burdette cradled mandolin, fiddle and stand-up bass respectively, plucking out rhythmic melodies while the soloist showcased his talents.

The trio performed a song of their own for the next part of the performance, bringing a brief respite to the night of percussion focused compositions. And while the Dan River Girls seemed somewhat out of place for the night’s recital, the music was welcomed with a solid applause from the audience.

Shortly after a brief intermission and changing out of instruments on the stage, Beck joined two soloists as they sat with congas before them, bringing a tribal element to the evening as they drummed out Josh Gottry’s “Hands Up” along with their conductor.

Perhaps the most impressive piece performed for the night’s program was “Head Talk” by contemporary composer Mark Ford; an arrangement for percussion written in 1995 for drum company Remo, in order to promote its groundbreaking new self-tuning drumheads. Members of the UNCSA high school ensemble sat in a semicircle in front of the wall of instruments which they would not be using for the piece. Equipped only with Remo drumheads that varied in size from 22-inch bass drum heads to small 10-inch tom heads, the five performers settled into an unconducted performance. Using sticks in addition to hands and fingers they pounded out a circling beat that resounded in the massive hall like a tribal ceremony, emanating simply from the drumheads alone. Ford’s piece of music makes use of the heads as well as the metal rims and floors, providing a varying pulse of sound. The performers drummed in expert execution and precise timing, culminating in an impressive moment of juggling and tossing the drumheads back and forth between them in the air, all while maintaining the beat.

UNCSA’s School of Music hosts a wide variety of free performances such as this, promoting the talents of students and shedding light on the wide expanse of music taught in their acclaimed programs.