Percussionist Mika Nakamura (from her Facebook page)
Last night in the Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM), percussionist Mika Nakamura gave her Graduate Recital for the completion of her Master’s degree studies. The program consisted of three works, each composed for different percussion resources, sandwiched between two arrangements of piano music. This made for a highly satisfying blend of diversity that one does not tend to associate with the percussion section of a symphony orchestra.
The high point of the evening was the performance of “Mudra” by Bob Becker, known by many as a member of the Steve Reich and Musicians ensemble and a founding member of the Toronto-based Nexus percussion ensemble. “Mudra,” which was composed in 1990, has less to do with Becker’s experiences in playing Reich’s music and more with the fusion of his interest in military drumming style with the constructs of North Indian Classical Music. The piece is a quintet in which all but one of the players works with a bell-like instrument. (The one exception is the marimba player.)
Nakamura herself played tuned finger cymbals, but her other instrument was a snare drum played without the snares. This was the “military” side of Becker’s stylistic synthesis; and there was something more than a little chilling about how this drum intruded upon the more raga-like passages assigned to the other instruments. Indeed, there was more than a faint reminder of the snare drum cadenza that distinguishes Carl Nielsen’s Opus 50 (fifth) symphony, in which a steady martial beat steadily loses all sense of rhythm with strong connotations of a nervous breakdown. In Becker’s case, as Nakamura’s drum work grew more intense, it was punctuated by Elizabeth Butler shifting instruments from glockenspiel to bass drum, intruding with arrhythmic gestures of her own.
Far more affable were the four short movements from Robert Aldridge’s 1988 From my little island, composed for solo marimba. Since this instrument has such a rapid decay time, notes can only be sustained through the pulsations of tremolo playing. Nakamura had a solid command of this technique, managing to elicit a singing style from an instrument that could not be more remote from vocal work. On the other hand the more natural staccato sonorities of the instrument were put to good use in her arrangement of “Wedding Day at Troldhaugen” from Edvard Grieg’s Opus 65, his eighth book of Lyric Pieces. Nakamura arranged this short piece for two marimbas; and she was joined by her teacher, Jack Van Geem, for this performance, which concluded her program.
By way of contrast, she opened the program with Karen Ervin’s arrangement of Claude Debussy’s solo piano composition, “Reverie.” This was played on a vibraphone without the vibrators activated. In contrast to the marimba, this metallophone has much longer decay times, sufficiently long that the mechanics include a damper pedal. The instrument could thus support phrasing similar to that of the original piano version, phrasing that was particularly evident through Nakamura’s solid command of soft dynamic levels.
The only real disappointment was David Lang’s “The Anvil Chorus.” This amounted to an “activity piece” requiring a diversity of different instruments. The music thus offered an impressive platform for the display of the performer’s technical and rhetorical skills. Nevertheless, when compared with Becker’s music, Lang’s piece seems to take an almost clinical approach to creating music in which rhythm is the primary element. Nakamura’s account rose admirably to all the technical demands that Lang’s score imposed, but this was the one selection in which expressive skills did not rise to the level of the technical ones. One has to wonder whether the problem was Nakamura’s or that of the material with which she had to work.