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Jeremy Eichler
The Boston Globe, January 2013

American Music for Percussion, Vol. 1 (New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble, Epstein) 8.559683
American Music for Percussion, Vol. 2 (New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble, Epstein) 8.559684

The composers commissioned included Elliott Carter, Gunther Schuller, John Harbison, Joan Tower, Peter Child, Jennifer Higdon, Fred Lerdahl, and Robert Xavier Rodriguez. The pieces range enormously in length and instrumentation, and in the sound worlds they inhabit — from the festive folk-tinged journey of Rodriguez’s “El Día de los Muertos,” to the splashy exuberance of Higdon’s “Splendid Wood” (for three marimbas), to the pristine complexities of Carter’s “Tintinnabulation” (completed at age 99). The performances, almost all of them led by Epstein himself, are exacting and high-caliber.

Many of the composers represented here seemed to treat the rare assignment of writing for percussion ensemble as license to think both boldly and playfully. © 2013 The Boston Globe Read complete review

Ronald E. Grames
Fanfare, January 2012

If you love percussion ensemble music, as I do, here is reason for rejoicing. Not only does this CD contain five high-quality works by living American composers of stature, all world premiere recordings played by one of the finest percussion ensembles around, it is the beginning of a promised series of such releases. In fact, a second volume, by the same ensemble, is already available as I write. It doesn’t get much better than this.

No one with any interest in the burgeoning field of percussion ensemble music should pass this or the second volume by. Here is hoping that Naxos can keep the series coming. © 2012 Fanfare Read complete review on Fanfare

Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, December 2011

What a pleasant surprise this turned out to be. I certainly didn’t expect music of such consistent quality and imagination. Even more impressive is the fine musicianship of these New Englanders, whose playing is very well captured by the recording team. Another niche-filler from Naxos. © MusicWeb International

Ira Byelick
American Record Guide, September 2011

…Joan Tower’s DNA is a listenable representation of the physical structure of DNA. Felicia Sandler’s Pulling Radishes—the title comes from a short Japanese poem, translated in the booklet as “The man pulling radishes pointed the way with a radish” comprises small rhythmic motives and interesting color changes, and is one of the most effective works on the record. Splendid Wood, by Jennifer Higdon, is called by the composer “a celebration of the splendor of the marimba”. And that it is—the beautiful sound of the instruments (three marimbas) takes center stage, though the piece is well written and Higdon knows how to exploit the instruments’ idiosyncrasies. Robert Xavier Rodriguez’s El Dia de los Muertos is inspired by the Mexican “day of the dead”. It is a work for eight percussionists that evokes a somber mood…

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, August 2011

This is the first in what promises to be an intriguing series. By their nature collections of music for percussion can be somewhat relentless. Careful programming is more important than ever if one is not to succumb to boredom or listening fatigue. The pedigree of the performers helps too, and it soon becomes clear that the students of the New England Conservatory—America’s oldest independent music school—are supremely talented. Their collective efforts are caught in a very spacious, natural acoustic. Indeed, minutes into the first track and I was already looking forward to the next instalment—Naxos 8.559684 (see my colleague’s review).

Inevitably, a piece entitled DNA is going to throw up all sorts of preconceptions about its structure, yet Joan Tower’s piece is remarkably concise and straightforward. An NEC commission, this percussive quintet certainly does combine and recombine its musical strands in a way that mimics life’s building blocks. From a whisper-quiet start through to its muscular rhythms and mighty plosions this is a tightly conceived and compelling work. Not since Kalevi Aho’s Luosto symphony have I encountered drumming of such insistence and impact. A very impressive start to this disc, and superbly recorded to boot.

But when it comes to work titles Pulling Radishes—taken from a nineteenth-century Japanese poem—is as gnomic as it gets. Yet what we hear in Felicia Sandler’s piece is more suggestive of Africa than the Far East. Even so, amidst all the drumming are passages of rarefied, celestial loveliness. True, there’s a compositional rigour here—Sandler explains her method in the liner-notes—but what really matters is that the work has an abiding ease and aural interest that makes it pass much too quickly.

Ditto Jennifer Higdon’s Splendid Wood which, as its title implies, is a celebration of all those woody sounds. Not surprisingly, the marimba takes centre-stage, its distinctive timbres very well caught in a close but still airy recording. As one who admires her orchestral blue cathedral—on a terrific Telarc disc from Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony—I’d say Splendid Wood is even more assured in its effects and focus. The playing is beyond reproach, Frank Epstein and his students immersed in the music right to its emphatic finish.

Can it get any better? Yes, with Robert Rodriguez’s El dia de los Muertos, based on the traditional Aztec-Mexican ceremony where the dead are invited to celebrate with the living. Another NEC commission, it dispenses with drums—apart from timps—and concentrates on pitched percussion instead. From its deep, slumbering start it’s clear the piece has an orchestral weight and thrust, the two vibraphones, glockenspiel, chimes, crotales, gongs and marimbas plus the Janáček-like figures on the timps producing the gaudiest, most thrilling sounds imaginable. This is astonishing; indeed, it’s the most original percussion writing I’ve heard in ages. All I can say is, prepare to be amazed.

At 25 minutes veteran composer and conductor Gunther Schuller’s Grand Concerto is by far the longest work here. In four movements it’s as much about exploring textures as it is about varying pulses; the range of this piece is remarkably wide, the splash of piano and shiver of gongs adding to Schuller’s eclectic—and sometimes trenchant—sound-world. I didn’t warm to the concerto at first—it doesn’t have the instant, atavistic appeal of El dia de los Muertos—but repeated hearings have persuaded me of its virtues, not least the sustained level of inspiration that keeps one engrossed to the very end. Once again, the quality of playing and recording is exceptional.

Even if percussion pieces aren’t your normal fare I’d urge you to try this disc. There’s so much here to delight the receptive ear and seduce the most reluctant one; indeed, if Volume 2 is half as good as this it’s going to be an indispensable series.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, June 2011

Never heard of Nipple Gongs, Roto Toms, Mark Tree or Quijada? Well here is your chance to make their acquaintance. Five compositions that use just about every percussion instrument known to man, Gunther Schuller revealing that he was like a child in a sweet shop when writing his Grand Concerto for Percussion and Keyboards. The outcome was a score of four movements with an octet of performers…the result a fascinating mosaic of tonal colours. Schuller conducts his fascinating mosaic of tonal colours in a benchmark performance. Opening the disc in a wave of vibrant energy, Joan Tower’s DNA is high on impact and contrasts with the following soft-grained sounds of the tuned percussion in Felicia Sandler’s Pulling Radishes and Jennifer Higdon’s Splendid Wood. If I told you to sample the disc by going straight to track 4—Robert Xavier Rodriguez’s El dia de los muertos, then I would be cheating, as this is a work that stands out from the crowd. Based on the Mexican folk holiday, The Day of the Dead, it is the perfect mix of tuned and untuned instruments, its rhythmic drive and melodic invention totally captivating. For quality of performance I deferred to my wife’s judgement as a professional percussionist. ‘They didn’t produce music college groups like that in my day’, summed up the response to the brilliance of the respective New England groups. As it was recorded over a period of four years from 2004 the players have changed but the remarkable standard remains throughout. The sound quality is equally consistent in its quest for absolute detail.

V. Vasan, June 2011

This album has five pieces written solely for percussion ensembles and features a tour of composers and their ideas on how to use tone color, rhythm, and even silence to create melodies based mostly in percussion. Joan Tower’s DNA begins with silence, progresses to rhythms on bells and the symbol, and then adds wood blocks for timbre. The wood blocks present what could almost be called a theme, with a pentatonic-sounding pattern. Tower certainly has a good sense of timbre in her orchestration for percussion, perhaps the result of her having lived in South America as a child. This is a visceral piece, one in which the listener can truly feel the rhythms. Felicia Sandler’s Pulling Radishes is less accessible, though it is cleverly composed around patterns involving the number 45. Schuller’s Grand Concerto is fairly inaccessible, for it has very little apparent structure, and little use of timbre, save some moments here and there, such as in its joyously cacophonous cascade ending with its jazz echoes. One cannot help but ask why he did not choose to compose the piece more in this vein, instead of in the way he did…The highlights of this album are Jennifer Higdon’s Splendid Wood and Robert X. Rodríguez’s El día de los muertos. Splendid is indeed splendid; it features three marimbas played by six musicians, creating a textured, musically rich atmosphere that is played with such accuracy and motion that the listener cannot help but feel carried away into its world. After much motion, Higdon leads the listener to a place of calm, and then quickens the tempo into a blooming atmosphere from the marimbas. There are echoes of Terry Riley or Steve Reich now and then, but this is clearly Higdon’s own work. It is certainly a rare treat to hear such an ensemble. The most programmatic of the pieces is El día (the composer’s notes explain the story), in which the dead are awakened by children and then celebrate with the living before returning to their graves. One can clearly hear the breeze blowing in the cemetery, the sparkling bells that awaken the spirits, and a folk melody that seems to be buried underneath the music. It all feels rather like an odd children’s fairytale world, full of fantasy and whimsy, which is Rodríguez’s gift to the listener through his skillful orchestration. In sum, there are enough exciting musical experiences on this album to make it a worthwhile addition.

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