On May 20, the 14th Unitarian Universalist Recital Series came to a stellar conclusion when three Fort Lewis College faculty members joined founder and pianist Marilyn Garst for a program of contemporary music. Organized by soloist John O’Neal, FLC professor of percussion studies and newly named department chairman, the program captured an attentive audience with its freshness. Only one jazz piece was familiar, a 1971 transcription of Keith Jarrett’s “In Your Quiet Place,” for solo vibraphone. Its comfy tunefulness contrasted with the “what’s-next” quality of every other work on the program.
Rarely has an audience sat at full attention throughout a 70-minute concert of new chamber music.
O’Neal began with a mesmerizing interpretation of an East Indian raga on a variety of drums. He then shifted sonic gears for a lyrical piece titled “Sword of Whispers” for solo vibraphone. An unlikely duet between O’Neal’s brushes on snare drum and a relentlessly dependable metronome surprised everyone with its variety, unexpected moments and an oddly touching ending.
O’Neal unspooled another duet when he was joined by alto saxophonist Justin Hubbard for Josh Spaulding’s “To Build a Bond So Strong.” Composed for a wedding, the remarkably beautiful and joyful work demonstrated how the voices of both sax and vibraphone sounded like intertwined human voices. Hubbard’s expressive performance style added considerably to the celebratory nature of the piece.,
When trumpeter Joe Nibley joined O’Neal for four short works by James Stephenson, he brought three of his trumpets. In “Chuck’s March,” Nibley and O’Neal evoked a haunting funeral cortege, especially with O’Neal’s persistent snare drum and periodic gestures toward marimba, triangle and woodblock. The march brought forth echoes of a battlefield remembrance, appropriate at any time, but especially poignant with the ongoing war in Ukraine.
For a finale, a big, boisterous-yet-lyrical excerpt from Emmanuel Séjourné’s “Concerto for Marimba and Strings” brought the recital to a close. Garst played a piano reduction for this very Spanish dance originally scored for string orchestra. O’Neal gave his marimba a demanding workout. In a middle section, Garst’s piano sallied forth as O’Neal’s marimba settled into a quiet secondary voice. Then, punctuated by big chords and riotous marimba arpeggios, the work came to a blazing end, reminding everyone that the piano is just as much a percussion instrument as marimba, vibraphone, drums, rattles and blocks.
After the concert, Garst remembered her introduction to Séjourné’s music at the very beginning of the UU Recital Series. Then FLC percussion rofessor John Pennington introduced the Spanish composer music to local audiences. With O’Neal’s offering of Séjourné’s Concerto, one might say Friday night came full circle.
Fans of chamber music can rejoice as there will be a 15th season next year.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.