Percussionist Ian Rosenbaum impresses at Phillips Collection

March 24, 2014

Concert pieces for solo percussion aren’t the novelties they were 20 or so years ago, but whole solo percussion recitals are still rare. Ian Rosenbaum, only the second solo percussionist the Phillips Collection has featured in its 72 years of weekly concerts, brought a sort of repertoire overview to his program on Sunday, and its variety was impressive. To say that a piece by John Cage was the afternoon’s most conventional-sounding might put the rest of the program in perspective.

Rosenbaum began with Andy Akiho’s “Stop Talking” for snare drum and the electronically massaged robotic “Vicki” voice, cut and pasted into rhythmic riffs that were only occasionally interrupted by discernible phrases. Like a pair of competitive tap dancers going at it, the drum and voice dueled fluidly and almost delicately until Vicki’s clearly enunciated “Stop talking,” at which point the piece ended. “To the Earth,” by Frederic Rzewski, had Rosenbaum reciting that ancient Homeric poem while drumming on four ceramic flower pots whose gentle out-of-tune-ness gave the piece an elemental sense of quiet peace.

The rest of the afternoon featured the marimba with an assortment of electronic accompaniments. For the opening movement of “Meadowlark,” which was receiving its premiere, composer Tawnie Olson strung out a three-second bit of birdsong into four minutes of subtle shadings and rhythmic pulses set as a cantus firmus under a shower of energetic marimba harmony. David Crowell’s “Celestial Sphere” was a crescendo of eight electronic marimbas vs. the live one, and both Akiho’s “21” and Alejandro Viñao’s “Khan Variations” reveled in intricate rhythms and subtly shifting tempos. Cage’s “In a Landscape” was gentle and unexpectedly impressionistic-sounding. Laboring under a welter of marimba overtones (the fifth dominating), the afternoon’s one transcription — three movements of a Bach cello suite — just sounded weird.

Rosenbaum was as much fun to watch as to listen to. He did everything gently but with exquisite care, and his comments about the music were offered informally but with the same quiet competence.

Reinthaler is a freelancer.

Ian Rosenbaum. (Matt Fried)
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