Music festival at local church a well-kept secret

The 18th annual Animas Music Festival has come and gone. Sparse publicity limited the crowds.

What a shame. John Pennington, the formidable former percussion studies director at Fort Lewis College, has been gone for four years. He has a similar position at Augustana College in North Dakota with a much bigger budget and support for annual musical excursions to India and other countries.

Lucky for us, Pennington continues to return to Durango for the Animas Music Festival. Specializing in rarely performed contemporary chamber music, the Animas suite of concerts brings new sounds and new works directly to us.

On June 3, the first concert featured Pennington and three high-powered percussionists who have formed an unusual quartet. All four men head percussion departments and are dedicated to performing new work: James Doyle of Adams State College, Steve Hemphill of Northern Arizona University, Jonathan Latta of Fort Lewis and Pennington.

For “Percussion Sculptures/Quartet,” the quartet played a variety of instruments – marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, imbira, bells, chimes, blocks – the full quiver that makes up an orchestral percussion section.

Two works by Steve Reich dominated the 90-minute concert. The longest, “Mallet Quartet,” played out in three movements. Doyle introduced it by explaining Reich’s inspiration via tape-loop technology and the patterns of West African drumming. The complex, hypnotic work unspooled in 18 minutes, one movement slipping into the next with varying moods and tempi. Surprisingly, a very brief retard brought the whole structure to a quiet but crisp conclusion.

Reich’s “Clapping Music” opened the concert. Originally composed for four performers doing just what the title suggests, the work has been rearranged by Pennington for two shakers and two musicians playing blocks. “Clapping Music” did what an overture is supposed to do – quiet the audience and refocus attention to the miracle of music.

Latta and Pennington performed Blake Tyson’s challenging “Vertical River” on vibraphone and marimba. They quietly turned ascending motifs into a rolling evocation of endless flowing water.

Accompanying an array of photographs of the Northern Lights, the percussion quartet performed Anders Astrand’s “The Nordic Light,” a delicate and eerie work evocative of nature.

In a concert filled with unusual music, Pennington’s own “Glass Façade” stood out for its exotic texture. The quartet took up instruments from different countries and in seven minutes spun a web of sound that combined Southeast Indian colors with South American textures.

Pennington dedicated a vibraphone duet, “Odds and Evens,” to the composer, the late Dana Brayton. The work had been suggested by musician and composer Katy Freiberger who was in the audience.

On Friday, cellist David Darling presented new age music in St. Mark’s Church. And on Saturday, Pennington and Cyprian Consiglio offered works from their many recordings in St. Columba Catholic Church. The duo concluded a concert of world music with a Buddhist blessing. The highly meditative concert brought another distinct Animas Music Festival to a beautiful end.

Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic. Reach her at jreynolds@durangoherald.com.

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