They are ungainly albeit attractive things to gaze upon. The marimba that stood in front of the cross in Olin T. Binkley Baptist Church on the evening of November 9 was large - it must have been at least seven feet long. Made of various metals and polished woods, it glistened in the floodlights. Its owner is Nathan Daughtrey, who grew up in Durham, and whose church home, till he went off to UNCG, was Binkley. His recital - a solo affair, augmented in one number by electronics - was in some respects a lovefeast, for in the audience were people who had known him all his life. There was a substantial crowd. They can't have heard many solo marimba concerts, but the response was warm, and there was a palpable intensity during the listening, too.
The program began and ended with transcriptions of music by Augustin Barrios Mangoré that turn up, in their original guitar guises, fairly often. "La Catedral" and "Una Limosnita por Amor de Dios" are among the composer's best-known works, and the transcriptions conveyed fine impressions of the original. The marimba is a bit too resonant and smooth to be mistaken for a classical guitar, but Daughtrey came close to tricking us, and on the way he managed to project many close approximations of outstanding guitar technique. There were more transcriptions in what was originally intended to be the center of the program, before one number was dropped. These were two of Paganini's 24 Caprices, originally for violin. The recitalist's four sticks may be seen as the fiddle's four strings, in reverse, as it were, and the impression he projected was one of dazzling virtuosity, particularly in the quick-paced Fifth Caprice, in A minor, marked Agitato. The violin is a lot smaller, however, so some of the playing required fast footwork as Daughtrey moved from one end of his instrument to the other and then back again.
That piece with the electronics was the program's penultimate offering. According to the program notes, Daniel McCarthy's "WarHammer" "merges the marimba and electronics into a single entity challenging the audience to distinguish between them." Its electronic language is conservative, and the volume was held to tolerable levels. To these ears, it seemed more like a concertino for marimba with somewhat subdued instrumental accompaniment. It's hard to imagine anyone - even foes of electronic or "computer" music - having any heartburn as a result of sitting through it. Even at first hearing, it seemed like an old friend. And Daughtrey, who premiered the piece in 1999, delivered what seemed to be a perfectly integrated performance. It provided variety in an otherwise all-solo program, and it was warmly received, too.
Just before the Paganini group came Jon Metzger's jazzy "Spiral Passages" (1996). In many ways, it seemed almost a throwback to the baroque era - it is lighter, less dense, and often less busy than some of the other works given on this occasion. There were hints of chorales among the jazzy riffs. The dynamic ranges were wide, the now subtle, now forceful. It ended with a great flourish, leaving everyone eager for the program to continue, after the intermission.
There was considerable interest in the evening's premiere of a new work by long-time UNCG composer (recently retired) Eddie Bass. "The Great East River Bridge" (a.k.a. the Brooklyn Bridge) is intended, the composer's program note tells us, to depict impressions of a walk across the bridge. Its components include a "stately approach... from the Brooklyn side," a section depicting "the energy and movement of walkers, bikers and autos," a "maestoso section... evok[ing] the first of the two... towers." There follows more "'traffic' music...," another "tower" section, a third "traffic" bit, and, finally, some departure music, echoing the opening passage, that depicts the walker's entry into Manhattan. This sounds more complex than it is. The opening and closing sections could just as well have depicted fog rising from the river; these passages evoked memories of some of Charles Ives' miraculous tone paintings. The three traffic sections are laden with bustle and energy, and the two towers stand tall and strong as peaks in the score. Daughtrey played the piece with awesome skill, projecting emotion and power and awe in his interpretation that would surely have impressed even those who hadn't read the notes. Bass was on hand for the performance, and we were amazed to learn from him, at intermission, that "The Great East River Bridge" was his first composition for solo marimba. A series of depictions of great landmarks from Bass' pen would be most welcome additions to the repertoire.
It may be worth noting that, aside from the Paganini numbers (which were transcribed by the soloist), everything on the program was by composers whose careers began in the 20th century. There were no complaints from the crowd at intermission or after the concert. Perhaps there's hope.
Leander Kaiser's "Apsara #1" was omitted. There was such a fuss at the end - Daughtrey was recalled several times, and received a standing ovation - that we thought he might do it as his encore, but it was not to be. Next time, perhaps. And there will be a next time, because this young man, who is working on his dissertation in Greensboro, is definitely worth seeking out and hearing.