Vibrant Debut for Marimba Virtuoso

MARY E. KISSEL '99 Solo Marimba at the Adams House LCR October 24

A keyword search on HOLLIS for scores with the word "marimba" turns up only 45 entries, the oldest of which was written in the 60s. An identical search for scores with the word "viola" exceeds the maximum number of items the system can display. Certainly this seems an injustice. The only excuse is the youth of the marimba, first manufactured in its modern form in 1910. The viola, comparatively, seems to have been around forever. Mary E. Kissel's solo marimba recital, heralded as the first solo marimba recital ever given in Adams House, managed to succeed in making a contemporary instrument, and contemporary music, both fascinating and accessible.

Given the general indifference to new music, and the unlikely case that anyone might be familiar with the repertoire of solo marimba works, the circumstances of such a concert are daunting. Public appeal for such an occasion would seem at best very small. What was it then that brought almost 100 people into a crowded Adams House LCR last Friday evening? What was it that made new music what it should be: vital, ecstatic?

The answer is not the relatively conservative program, but rather Kissel's superb performance. Except for the occasional click of her mallets, the performance was nearly flawless. Kissel reminds us of what we value in virtuosity: not the complexity of the music, but the effortlessness with which that music is executed.

The program alternated between works by Japanese and American composers, more than half of which, including the piece by Kissel herself, were written by women. Such new music for a relatively new instrument creates an interesting circumstance for most audiences: expectation defined by the instrument itself, rather than a repertoire of standard works or recordings of well known performers. In many ways, the marimba is a very limited instrument. The wood bars that generate the sound make subtle fluctuations of pitch (vibrato) impossible. The metal tubes under each bar--the resonators--provide only a few seconds worth of audible sustain. The use of four mallets, two to a hand, limits the simultaneous articulation of tones to tetrachord. The challenge then, in both performing and writing for this instrument, is making it sing: creating lines out of points of sound.

Sharon Smith's Reverence, with Kissel's delicate and sweet rendering of melody, illustrated just how surmountable these limits are. Keiko Abe's Memories of the Seashore provides another example, a fittingly nostalgic melody in the lower register performed with great sensitivity to contour and phrasing. Kissel's treatment of dynamics, here and elsewhere, added much to the emotive character of these works.


Kissel's own Reflections of Us, introduced as "short, but says what I want to say," was indeed just that, a brief, meditative piece dominated by a single, poignant melody. Predominantly homophonic, registral spacing and changes in tempo demarcated the basic two-part form. Though perhaps a bit too short and lacking development, the B-1work succeeded in conveying a strong sentiment, proving again the expressive capacity of the instrument.

If lyricism is a challenge, rhythm is entirely idiomatic to this instrument. The program was dominated by groove; that is, in almost every piece the music was underpinned by rhythmic regularity, be it the ocean-like undulations of the opening chords of Keiko Abe's Memories of the Seashore, the fantastic polyrhythms of Rhythm Song by paul Zadbeck or the intricate arpeggios, executed at amazing speeds, of Keiko Abe's Michi.

Michi, introduced by Kissel as one of the most powerful pieces written for marimba, easily lived up to its preface, exploiting the entire dynamic and registral capacity of the instrument. Beginning with complex arpeggios, the piece unfolds into a mass of sound of almost orchestral density. The abrupt pause that followed filled the room with a tremendous resonance. Kissel succeeded in making not only the instrument but the entire room sing with a resonance of unprecedented duration. After a contrasting section in the upper register, compositionally disappointing in Abe's almost banal use of functional harmony, the return to the opening led seamless into an improvisation, a cadenza of sorts, by Kissel herself. Here, at her virtuosic best, an intense web of rhythm and polyphony was created, Kissel all the while playing with the utmost sensitivity to the independence of voices and dynamic contrasts.

If complaint is necessary, this rhythmic consistency, along with the primarily diatonic harmonies of most of the works, made the program a bit too homogenous. The one admittedly "atonal" work, Two Movements for Marimba by Toshimitsu Tanaka, provided a welcome contrast to the harmonic vocabulary of the other works. With a change of mallets, Kissel brought out the greatest diversity of color and texture from the instrument. Perhaps one of the most dramatic works on the program, the piece's opening gestural fragments are later contrasted with homophonic and polyphonic textures. Arriving at a moving climax, Kissel superimposed complex passage work over a furiously pounded drone in the bass.

Kissel succeeded in this recital not only as interpreter and creator, but as a sort of envoy. If the warm and consistent applause, culminating in a standing ovation, can be taken as a testament, the audience left not only pleased with Kissel's performance, but with a favorable impression of new music and as proof of its enduring vitality.Kathryn M. VerdirameCLASSIC CONTEMPORARY: MARY E. KISSEL '99 performed to an enthralled crowd.