“You can’t play a sad song on the banjo,” Steve Martin has said. “It always comes out so cheerful.”
The same applies, I think, to the xylophone. Or, at least, that was something that occurred to me as I listened to the “Percussive Harmony” concert by the six-piece Montclair Orchestra Percussion Ensemble at the Morris Museum in Morris Township, Aug. 4 (the event had been postponed from Aug. 1 because of rain). Virtually everything they played had an uplifting quality, thanks partially to the instruments on the stage: In addition to the xylophone, the ensemble used marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, drums, timpani and claves.
The show was officially part of the Morris Museum’s Lot of Strings Music Festival — featuring, mostly, string quartets, and taking place outdoors, for socially distanced audiences, on a parking deck. But on this night, there were no strings in sight.
Fans of popular music tend to think of percussion instruments as providing only rhythm, and no melody. That obviously changes when you add xylophones, marimbas and so on. So there was melody in this concert; it just wasn’t delivered the way most people are used to hearing it.
Barry Centanni, the Montclair Orchestra’s chief percussionist, leads the ensemble, and proudly mentioned at the end of the evening that everyone onstage had been a student of his, at some point. He and ensemble member Thomas Mulvaney talked to the audience between numbers, casually explaining how the instruments work, and the differences between them. Their tone was often joking and playful: A violin may stir deep emotions, but a xylophone evokes an almost child-like sense of fun.
All the musicians played various instruments over the course of the night, for a program that was quite far-ranging. There was plenty of ragtime on it (including the well-known Scott Joplin compositions “The Entertainer” and “The Easy Winners,” both heard in the movie “The Sting”) as well as an import from the world of opera (Georges Bizet’s “Toreador Song,” from “Carmen”). Tchaikovsky was represented (“Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from “The Nutcracker,” a good showcase for Mulvaney’s glockenspiel playing), as was Gershwin (“Sweet and Lowdown”).
For Zequinha de Abreu’s “Tico Tico,” egg shakers were distributed to audience members, who were invited to play along. And there were two novelty compositions in the program.
Larry Spivak’s “Quartet for Paper Bags” featured — you guessed it — four of the ensemble members coaxing sounds out of different-sized bags (an alto bag, a tenor bag, a baritone bass and a bass bag). But it fell a bit flat. Too much of it was just a blur of white noise; the music was too hard to find.
But Leroy Anderson’s “The Typewriter,” featuring Centanni on that now rarely used machine, was an upbeat winner, with its charmingly nostalgic clacking, its perky bell sounds, and the crisp thunks of its carriage returns. It was well positioned as the penultimate song on the program, before two bursts of energy to close: George Hamilton Green’s “Log Cabin Blues” and then, as the encore, Green’s brother Joe Green’s equally brisk and bright “Xylophonia.”
Next up in the Lot of Strings Music Festival is the Tesla Quartet, Aug. 15 at 8 p.m., playing music by Schubert and Caroline Shaw. Visit morrismuseum.org.
For more on the Montclair Orchestra, visit montclairorchestra.org.
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