I’ve seen a few percussion shows in my day, and often they are long and drawn-out affairs, featuring a lot of atonal contemporary music designed to test the limits of the audience’s attention span. Sometimes the pieces can be downright bizarre. I recall one show that I saw that featured the rhythmic shattering of glass cups and strange vocal yelping interludes. So going into the Fringe Festival performance of Michael Burritt and Friends Friday night at Kilbourn Hall, I was wary that I might be in for such experimentalism. Instead I was pleasantly surprised by a concert that was both engaging and diverse.
Like all things Eastman, the quality of musicianship displayed at the show was top notch. Michael Burritt is a world-famous percussionist; in fact. I’m pretty sure I owned one of his mallet-percussion books back when I played in high school. His list of accolades are almost comedically numerous (the show’s program had to dedicate several lengthy paragraphs to cover all that he has accomplished). Add to the mix percussion icon John H. Beck and up-and-coming composer and percussionist Ivan Trevino, as well as several talented Eastman students, and the show had all the ingredients for brilliance.
I was most impressed by quality and diversity of the program itself, which kept my unwavering interest throughout. The show began with a contemporary piece “Estudio de Fontera,” which was quite good and accurately described by Burritt as a “sophisticated groove.” Then there was the second piece, which I can only describe as amazing. It piece was called “Tambourines”and featured Burritt soloing on two of the titular instruments.The tambourine isn’t the most glamorous of instruments, and is usually relegated to a meager roll in the percussion ensemble. It always sucked in band class when you got assigned to the tambourine part. But Burritt completely redefined my idea of what is possible on the instrument. He tapped blustering rhythms on one tambourine while playing the other with his foot (yes, his foot), changing dynamics and tempos with ease. At one point he had one tambourine in each hand and was shaking each hand so fast and evenly I thought maybe he was having an seizure.
The third piece, titled “Three Poems,” was also quite good, and a piece that was truly in the spirit of the Fringe Festival. Burritt’s daughter Kelsey accompanied him on stage and read three original poems while Burritt played on marimba. While I’m usually not one for spoken-word performances, this one was actually quite moving. Kelsey is a talented poet and there was something about the combination of the poetry and the marimba that took the whole thing to another level.
The remainder of the performance was just as good, featuring a solo marimba piece by Burritt, a more rock-and-roll-style collaboration between Burritt and Trevino, and an ensemble piece for mallet and tenor drum. All of these numbers had me bobbing in my seat (always a good when music has that effect) and the final piece demonstrated that Burritt is just as adept at belting out gatling-gun-like snare drum passages as he is at traversing his four mallets across a marimba.
The show was inspiring. I used to play percussion but over the years I have seen that interest fade. After watching this ensemble tonight, I think I might just have to dust off the old stick bag.