At the end of this week, GENUIN classics will release the debut album of a 2013 award winner from the German Music Competition (Deutscher Musikwettbewerb). The aim of the competition is to provide support for talented young musicians, and in this case that musician is the American percussionist Sabrina Ma. The title of her album is Playtime!; and, for those who cannot wait until Friday for the physical release, it is currently available for download from iTunes.
There is good reason to believe that Ma chose the name of her album with full awareness of the dual semantics of the verb “play.” Clearly, it refers to her prodigious skill as a player of the full family of percussion instruments; but it also acknowledges the playful spirit of many, if not all, of her selections. That spirit is clearly apparent in the two compositions by Markus Bongartz, “Portrait” and “Poem,” that begin and conclude the album respectively.
Both of these are world premiere recordings. “Portrait” is a duo for percussion and harpsichord (Olga Zheltikova), which may, at first blush seem preposterous. However, Bongartz has scrupulously chosen percussion sonorities to match the limited dynamics of the harpsichord; and the exchanges between the two instruments are thoroughly engaging. In “Poem” the exchange is between two percussionists (Ma and Alexandros Giovanos). It is much shorter in duration but no less witty (although that wit would probably be underscored by seeing the music being performed).
That playfulness even extends to what many will take as the major composition on the album, Brian Ferneyhough’s “Bone Alphabet” for solo percussionist. Here in San Francisco, percussionist Steven Schick is Artistic Director of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP); and he is given to talking incessantly about this composition, almost to the point of apotheosizing it. Naturally, he chose to play it during his inaugural season with SFCMP; and the choreography required to manage the wide selection of instruments was as fascinating as the grammar that Ferneyhough harnessed to engage his lexicon of sonorities, so to speak. Listening to “Bone Alphabet” without the benefit of such visual stimuli entails a risk that Ferneyhough’s proclivity for elaborate abstraction will be overwhelming; but Ma manages to convey her sense of play solely through auditory stimuli, making Ferneyhough’s abstractions engaging if not downright entertaining.
For the most part, however, that “sense of play” on this album involves playing well with others. Only one other selection on the album is a solo, “Cálculo Secreto” (secret calculation), by José Manuel López López. This is also one of the longer tracks, and it involves an introspectively moody rhetoric based on the reverberations of a vibraphone. This is clearly the play of solitaire, perhaps even at the level of a diversion that will distract consciousness from the natural flow of time. Like “Bone Alphabet,” “Cálculo Secreto” is a study of sonorities; but, if Ferneyhough’s approach was driven by scrupulous attention to grammar, López tends to direct his focus more towards rhetoric.
Where playing with others is concerned, the sense of “group play” is alive and well. Giovanos also joins Ma in a performance of Steve Reich’s “Nagoya Marimbas” with a clear sense of the fun associated with the composer’s rhythmic patterns. There is also the world premiere recording of Jan Schöwer’s “Plateaux,” scored as a duo for electric guitar and percussion with Schöwer himself playing guitar. The title may (or may not) refer to the possibility that the two instruments reside on different planes but are still capable of engaging with each other. Giovanos and Schöwer join Ma to provide an accompanying combo for Rilli Willow singing her song “Havana,” which, like her other song, “… az ze hamechir …” (with no translation of the Hebrew text in the booklet), is mildly diverting but not much more. For the most part, however, Ma’s approach to playing with others is one of jamming, whether or not the players happen to be following a score. The result is a jazzy quality to her rhetoric that tends to sharpen focus on the many things she can do with her instruments.