Naoko Takada's Sunday afternoon marimba recital at the Terrace Theater offered many pleasures. The repertory for this instrument, which might be likened to a gigantic xylophone, is still somewhat limited, for it is only in recent years that it has begun to come into its own as a solo vehicle. Still, between Takada's own arrangements of music by Bach and Debussy and contemporary works by a number of American and Japanese composers, a lively and effective program was assembled.
Watching Takada play was part of the fun. At times she looked like a practitioner of some as-yet-undefined martial art, wielding two mallets in each hand and then plunging them down, with fierce exactitude, into the instrument's solar plexus. At other times she took on the air of an actress, calibrating her hesitations and wearing the mood of the music on her expressive face.
At least since the pioneering work of Steve Reich in the early 1970s, much music for mallet instruments tends to be busy, consonant and reiterative. The title Joseph Schwantner gave to the first piece on the program -- "Velocities (Moto Perpetuo)" -- summed up much of the afternoon. Because the sound of the marimba fades so quickly, composers tend to keep their players very active, hammering away speedily and in a close approximation of perpetual motion.
Two composers in their early twenties fashioned works especially for Takada. Yasutaki Inamori's "Petals in the Wind" made eloquent play with Japanese musical modes and gentle rhythmic pulsations. Paul Fowler's "Michiyuki (The Road to Death)," based on an 18th-century Japanese play titled "The Love Suicides at Sonezaki," occasionally seemed overcrowded with ideas -- the whacking of sticks, hums and whispers from Takada, and so on -- yet the ideas were real and the piece effective.
Eric Ewazen's "Northern Lights" contained the most affecting music of the afternoon -- a sort of rhapsody on a chorale, dignified and prayerful, moving along solemnly on waves of pure feeling. Leigh Howard Stevens's "Rhythmic Caprice" proved an expert display of the marimba's outer limits by a composer who has dedicated much of his life to the instrument (Stevens holds four U.S. patents for marimba design). And Daniel Berg's "Over the Moon" proved a succinct, jazzy romp -- here and gone.
Takada hit a few wrong notes early on in her arrangement of Bach's Prelude and Fugue in C Minor from the first book of "The Well-Tempered Clavier" and they seemed to rattle her for the rest of the piece, which never quite settled in. Her two settings of Debussy, the Arabesque No. 1 in E Minor and "Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum" from the "Children's Corner" -- were much more successful. The latter of these, in particular, was characterized by a wonderful mixture of pomp and playfulness.