JWR Articles: CD - American Gifts for Marimba Duo (Featured performers: Jack van Geem, Nancy Zeltsman) - September 28, 2020
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American Gifts for Marimba Duo

4.5 4.5
66 min.

BRIDGE 9534
A very fine assortment of textures, tones and colours

While most certainly the quartet of American composers recorded here have rendered their compositional gifts to great effect, the marimba duo of Jack Van Geem and Nancy Zeltsman have employed their considerable artistic gifts to produce a CD that will be welcome “under the tree” of any music lover.

Irving Fine’s covey of snippets that make up Music for Piano (1947—adapted by Geem and Zeltsman), immediately sets the tone for the album’s distinctive hues.

The opening “Prelude”—light, jolly, energizing, a tad jazzy immediately engages the ear with its well-balanced landscape.

“Waltz – Gavotte” begs the question, Shall we dance? (we shall!), featuring an attractive lilt in the former where only some variety in the weight of the repeated notes might improve the result, then a well-crafted, fun transition leading to the latter’s forward-looking direction whose final destination is never in doubt.

The Variations lift off with an “Andante” whose central idea is filled with charming morsels of hesitato and tastefully executed tremolos. The “Allegro” offers a great line oozing with introspectiveness and never feels “bossy” (so welcome in 2020…). There’s a Bach-like feel to the next “Andante” where marvellous “pizzicati” punctuation complements everything above. Welcome chordal writing in the opening of the “Lento” adds refreshing variety then moves steadily forward, thoughtfully towards the final leading tone.

From its “nervoso” launch, “Interlude –Finale” quickly shifts to “all is well” mode, where the duo expertly toss off the interweaving lines, moving steadily forward to a confident, shimmering conclusion.

Adapted by Zeltsman, Roger Sessions’ Sonata No. 1 for piano (1930) suits the marimbas to a T. Following a somewhat eerie/haunting opening—with one welcome triplet—the “Allegro” suddenly interrupts, offering rollicking, joyful contrasts—soon to shift gears—but performed with rhythmic surety that is always engaging. A few dreamy moments offer relief, then, finally together as one, disappears into the night after the tolling bells…

The opening resumes sporting more triples and infused with thoughtful confidence, expertly balanced/blended as if one instrument. Then, after a warming excursion (“Poco meno mosso”), the seamless return bids a proper adieu while everything…winds…down.

The closing “Molto vivace” truly lives up to the notion of lively rather than very fast. Its optimism is contagious even as the ranges expand. Busyness increases, mixed up with some touches of jazz and “grace”. At times a perpetuum mobile, the insistent theme drives everything forward before the final push satisfactorily resolves all that came before with home consonance.

Joseph Bracket’s Simple Gifts, based on the Shaker poem ‘Tis a Gift to Be Simple (1848)—arranged by Penny Rodriguez—feels like meeting an old friend decked out in new clothes. Lovingly rendered with every stroke, any listener most certainly can’t help savouring the colours and smile inwardly with memories of past “encounters”. Somewhere, Aaron Copland is grinning from ear to ear.

The only work to be written for the artists comes from the inventive mind of Michael Tilson Thomas. Island Music (2003—just a couple of months after the world raged against a possible war in Iraq: cross reference below), is a marvel of largely “struck” instrumentation (four marimbas—Raymond Froelich, James Lee Wyatt III, assisting as tutti marimbaists, and a kitchen full of percussion ably rendered by David Herbert and Tom Hemphill).

With the germ of the theme coming from Bali, and clear references to the Caribbean and the United States, it is not unreasonable to consider the overall effect to be an East and West side story. Particulate in “Thoughts on the Dance Floor”, the infectious lines, crisp punctuation along with rhythmic thrust and parry would most certainly be cheered on by Leonard Bernstein.

Thomas artfully uses time (the first three movements more or less doubling in length, before the “Nothing can stop us now” finale [“Ride Outs”] is half of the central “In the Clearing”) and contrasts: push and pull, liquid and dryness, to keep the ear constantly engaged as the purposely evolutionary development unifies this extraordinary soundscape from stem to stern. How wonderful it might be if one of our leading choreographers opted to find physical expression to complement the multicultural ebb and flow of this singular creation.

And, finally, cheers to the ensemble. There is a palpable feeling of congeniality within the sextet that becomes the artistic icing on this thoughtful musical cake. JWR

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