Note: This review is up on the Conrad Grebel website here; please take a moment to visit: https://uwaterloo.ca/music/news/toronto-percussion-ensemble-review
Freezing rain and reigning percussionists brought together on a Wednesday afternoon is a winning combination. Conrad Grebel University College hosted the Toronto Percussion Ensemble February 24th, bringing a wide array of drums, keyboards, and musical styles to the Noon Hour Concert series. I was prepared to be treated to a stellar concert, but boy, did this give me more than I bargained for!
The quartet is made up of four educators and world-class players: John Brownell, David Campion, Mark Duggan and Beverly Johnston. Each player has his or her own specialty; Johnston is a marimba virtuoso, Campion a timpanist and kit player (along with fantastic general percussion), and Duggan a world percussion aficionado. Brownell, who currently teaches at Grebel (and instructed me in my first term at the University), is well known locally for his regular performances with the K-W Symphony, along with other high-profile Toronto Symphony and Canadian Opera Company gigs. I say this not only to pump up their bios with a little press, but also to recognize that each player brings a unique, individual aspect to the group, like ingredients in a percussive ice-cream sundae. It is winter, after all – no need to refrigerate this dish!
The quartet opened with a percussive staple, a blend of The Three Camps and The Downfall of Paris, both of which being pieces that are verbose in the vocabulary of any classically-trained percussionist. Three rope snares and a traditional rope bass drum pounded out these military standards, with precision and a bit of flare; sticks flew across drums in the final phrase of the piece in a fancy demonstration of choreography. It was a bit like the quartet channeled the flare of modern marching corps with the tradition of rope drumming – think Fort Henry meets Drumline. Come to think of it, last time I was at Fort Henry, even they had choreographed stick tricks going on. It’s infectious!
Thumb-pianos and improvisation graced Mbira, a traditional Zimbabwean amalgamation of axatsi shakers and agogo bells. Duggan’s precision on the thumb piano translated seamlessly into his vibraphone chops during Doce de Coco, a Brazilian pop-based tune that had a bit of a ragtime feel to it. The group was able to get some of that Brazilian lilt to the groove of this piece, so I suppose it was less like ragtime and more like samba. I wish they could have tossed in some nasty flam-infused snare drum beats to spice up the rhythmic element of the piece, but it amazed me how far they were able to push the mallet instruments in channeling the region’s cultural vocabulary.
From head-bobbing Brazilian grooves down to a very understated, minimalistic tribute to Nexus percussionist John Wyre. John’s Gone features a wide assortment of bell-like mallet percussion, including crotales, vibraphone, and concert bells. The piece had such an arc to it, mystifying the audience with its persistent pulse that built and subsided like ethereal wind chimes swaying in the winds of time. The piece, which at several points featured bowed vibraphones for an even edgier element, was a bit like modernist poetry, having structure and form but seemingly emerging and receding at will, as if something beyond humanity was at play. It was really quite moving.
The atmospherics were broken as the Overture to William the Comic Barber burst forth, a farcical amalgamation of famous operatic and orchestral melodies that Brownell complained “percussionists never get to play!” The piece was engaging, light-hearted, and very technically impressive, with xylophone runs and incredibly quick passages up and down the entirety of the instruments. I’d personally no idea how virtuosic Brownell is with mallet percussion, but wow, can that man dazzle with a pair of acrylic mallets!
An incredible, deep resonance from the Dream tam-tam followed as part of a Sudanese Gamelan-inspired piece full of metallophones (bits of musical metal someone thought sounded good!). Pull Ganti had me mesmerized through the incredible contrast of the large Burmese gong and the Chinese tam-tam, one with a definite pitch, the other with a seismic-wave-inducing wash of pure power. It is incredible to hear a thin, large, flat piece of bronze craft such a deep, powerful bass – EDM producers need to get their pens and notepads out; this thing moved some serious air!
The group closed an incredible hour with a traditional Ghanean improvisational piece that featured Brownell on a master drum. Titled Gahu, the quartet grooved their way through what was perhaps the most communicative piece of the show, and I don’t just say that because Campion pulled out a talking drum for the middle section, nor because Johnston actually vocalized a few times throughout. This music is culturally community-based, and thus it is reliant on not only the connection between the players, but everyone present; no one danced, but I sure latched onto the groove, and speaking to others after the concert, so did they! It was an incredible finale to a percussive fireworks display, spanning the gamut of what is possible within the wide, wide world of, well, hitting things. Incredible!