Two unusual preludes opened the September 16, 2012, worship service at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. Joining Westminster’s Organist and pianist, Melanie Ohnstad, for the preludes was percussionist Jeffrey Gram.
Concertino for Marimba
The first prelude was Movement II of Concertino for Marimba by Paul Creston, an Italian-American composer (1906-1985) whose works have a strong rhythmic element. This work originally was written for marimba and orchestra. Its second movement is marked “Calm.” After an introductory theme first presented by the piano (solo flute in the orchestral version), the main theme (in chordal structure) is played by the marimba with four mallets. The general mood of tranquility persists except for the middle part.
Jeffrey Gram says that “this movement is written in ABA form. The A section that begins and ends the movement has the marimba’s rolled melodic lines flowing over the piano’s subtle rhythmic pulse. The B section is a cadenza or an ornamental passage in a free rhythmic style, and it increases in tempo and crescendos to a climax.”
The second prelude was Praise for steel drum and organ by Carol Barnett. With the steel drum, I was expecting to hear Caribbean rhythms. Instead there was a continuation of the mood of tranquility with a true blending of the sounds of the two instruments.
The Barnett piece, according to Gram, “begins calmly enough to evoke tranquility, with the steel drum providing some rhythmic interest over the organ’s low notes, but the piece develops much more active and rhythmic themes throughout and builds to an exciting finish. The organ provides much of the driving force of the piece. I hear the steel drum almost as hand bells or chimes (an appropriate allusion for a performance in the church) with repetitive rhythms and punctuating melodic lines here and there. The work’s mixed meters and rhythmic patterns require the performer to be on his or her toes.”
Gram said that Praise is scored for organ and steel drum, vibraphone, or marimba, and he learned the percussion part on both marimba and steel drum and decided to play it on steel drum to add another instrumental voice to the preludes.
Another reason, he acknowledged, for using the steel drum is that “it was much easier for me to play accurately on that instrument. The part contains several lines of melody consisting of unison double-stops (two notes played simultaneously) where the two notes are up to a couple octaves apart from each other. On the steel drum, these notes are very near to each other all around the circular drum and thus are relatively simple to execute accurately. On the marimba, notes are laid out linearly like a piano such that notes a couple octaves apart are actually a few feet apart and the performer must reach in opposite directions to strike each note. In the grand scheme of marimba literature, this is a fairly common and not necessarily a difficult task for a performer. But for this part-time percussionist, it can be difficult to perform the part accurately with any measure of consistency. Plus, the steel drum is just plain fun to play and to play it along with organ is a truly unique and rewarding experience.”
The composer of Praise, Carol Barnett, is a charter member of the American Composers Forum and a graduate of the University of Minnesota, where she studied composition with Dominick Argento and Paul Fetler, piano with Bernard Weiser, and flute with Emil J. Niosi. Barnett now is a Studio Artist (Composition) at Minneapolis’ Augsburg College in addition to being a composer and performer. She enjoys the challenge of using instruments in unusual combinations, and certainly the organ with steel drum is such a combination.
Melanie Ohnstad has served Westminster as organist since November 1995. She received the Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the University of Minnesota. She also holds the Master of Music in Organ Performance degree from Arizona State University and the Bachelor of Music degree from St. Olaf College.
Jeffrey Gram is a performer and advocate of new music. His performance experience includes solo and ensemble work with several new music ensembles across the U.S., an appearance at the International Gaudeamus Interpreters Competition in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, and premier performances of percussion works by Thomas DeLio, Roger Zahab, and Stuart Saunders Smith. He performs on a CD of new music.
Jeffrey earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in percussion performance from Northwestern University and the University of Akron and taught percussion at the University of Pittsburgh and Muskingum College.
Jeffrey has since earned a Juris Doctor degree and practiced law. He now is a Gift Planner with Minnesota Philanthropy Partners, a network of foundations, funds and organizations that share knowledge and services to have the greatest possible impact through charitable giving. He specializes in connecting individuals, families and businesses with giving opportunities that match their values and meet their personal goals.
Gram is a Westminster member.
Following these two preludes was the moving Processional Hymn, “O Holy One and Nameless,” that was discussed in a prior post. The sermon that day–“What Do Our Hearts Treasure?”–was also excerpted in another post. A video of the entire service is on the web.