Simon Sinfonietta Showcases the Marimba

June 24, 2011

Pius Cheung, in the Falmouth Academy library, at a reception following the Simon Sinfonietta concert.

The Simon Sinfonietta ended its seventh season in splendid form on June 4 at Falmouth Academy with just the sort of concert its director, Stephen Simon, is best known and respected for: a combination of infrequently heard musical gems, a fine soloist, and talented musicians, all for the enjoyment and enlightenment of an appreciative audience.

The highlight of the evening was a masterful performance by Pius Cheung, a young Chinese-Canadian marimba virtuoso–in keeping with Mr. Simon’s efforts to share uncommon music and outstanding soloists. Cheung gave an awe-inspiring performance of Paul Creston’s jazzy and technically demanding Concertino for Marimba and Orchestra.

Why the marimba, you might ask, and many people did ask just that of Cheung in the reception that followed the concert. He explained that he started playing the piano as a young child, and then began to play percussion. He was drawn to the marimba for its sound qualities. The marimba is kind of a xylophone with resonators that extend its sound.

Cheung explains it more precisely on his website (piuscheung.com ): “The word marimba means ‘singing wood.’ Something about the natural resonance of wood and how the sound floats in the air makes my entire body vibrate. It’s not only an instrument that you hear, but it’s also like a living musical being that you feel in your heart and soul.”

There is not a large repertoire for marimba and orchestra; Cheung is seeking to remedy that by composing his own works for the instrument, several of which have won awards.

This evening, though, he wowed the audience with Creston’s concerto.

Creston (1906 to 1985) was an Italian-American composer; he was born Giuseppe Guttoveggio in New York City to Sicilian immigrants. His music is considered classical, but it includes the unusual: concertos for alto saxophone, for accordion, and for tap dancer and orchestra. His marimba concertino, written in 1940, shows off the many capabilities of the marimba and reflects his deep understanding and mastery of rhythm.

Using a variety of mallets, sometimes one in each hand, sometimes, two, Cheung was fluid and graceful in his motions, eloquently expressive, and precise, almost as if he were dancing with the instrument.  He was at ease with the jazzy syncopated rhythms. His technical ability, his control of the instrument, is clearly high, but it is his ability to play with his heart and soul that made him stand out and makes him a pleasure to listen to.

The concerto, in three movements, began with an agitated orchestral introduction, accented by rhythmic cello, lively and compelling, leading up to the marimba entrance.

Cheung entered, matching the vibrant spirit of the orchestra, but soon led it in a more lyrical theme, but only briefly, as the moods changed quickly, and the driving force of the movement was Vigorous, as it is named.

The second movement, Calm, was introduced by a solo flute (Claude Cobert), gently accompanied by the marimba, horns, and strings. Cheung produced some beautiful shimmering sounds on the marimba, which the strings echoed. A plaintive flute returned toward the end, joined by oboe and other winds, and the movement ends in a long final chord.

Lively, the final movement, combines a scherzo and the finale. This is a very high-energy movement, and Cheung gave it his all, playing quickly, almost frenzied, but always in control.

The audience rewarded him with a standing ovation, and many callbacks for both him and Mr. Simon.

Cheung has recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which was praised critics for technical and expressive excellence.

His second CD, “Symphonic Poem,” released in 2009, is his own composition. Several videos of Cheung’s performances of his own music, and that of others, can be found on YouTube.

Here is his Etude in c minor:

And here is the aria from his Goldberg Variations:

Also on the program, was Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 90 in C Major. Haydn wrote 104 symphonies, and not all are frequently performed. No. 90 is one of those rarely played gems.

In four movements, the symphony began slowly, with a long opening chord, in Adagio, before coming alive in a spirited Allegro. The horns were vibrant, the flutes melodic, and the intensity palpable.

The second movement Andante was soothing, meditative, but not lacking in energy, while the third movement, Menuetto/Allegro, a traditional waltz began in a majestic mood.

The fourth movement is noted for its false ending, proof that Haydn had a sense of humor.

The final work on the program was my favorite, Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir of Florence,” Opus 70, despite its technical difficulty for the orchestra, which led to an imperfect performance.

On the whole, though, it was spirited and, as Mr. Simon put it in the program, possessing a “decidedly Russian musical soul,” despite its name. (The name comes from the fact that Tchaikovsky composed the second of the four movements on a visit to Florence.

Written for string sextet (two violins, two, violas, and two cellos), the piece was played by string orchestra, necessitating one additional cellist to provide a balance: Sam Ericsson, the son of principal cellist Bo Ericsson, and second cellist Elizabeth Schultze. Michael Czitrom played third cello, as usual.

Sam, a student at the Cleveland Institute of Music, also played in the other two works.

The first movement, Allegro Con Spirit, began with turbulent energy, leading into a calmer mood, accented with pizzicato, carried, in turn by the violins, violas, and cellos, sometimes graceful and fluid, sometimes tempestuous. There was a nice trading back and forth between the concertmaster, Charles Sherba, and his wife, Consuelo, principal violist, followed by rapid acceleration toward the invigorating ending.

The slow movement began with a violin solo, supported by cello pizzicato. Then the melody quickly moved from one  instrument to another, one section finishing the sentence of the last.

Midway through, Sherba and Bo Ericsson shared a lyrical duet, both instruments lovely and expressive.

The final two movements had a more distinctly Russian style, the third providing some very rhythmic sections, with an appealing blend of bowing and pizzicato, and the fourth, an extremely fast display of driving Russian dance themes.

The Simon Sinfonietta returns to Falmouth on September 17, 2011, with a program featuring violinist Jorge Avila performing the Mendelssohn violin concerto. Three more concerts  are planned for February, March, and June 2012. See simonsinfonietta.org for details.

Pius Cheung, with his friend Eriko Daimo, also a very talented young marimba player, and Stephen and Bonnie Simon at the reception following the concert.
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