Big Bang

Wedged between Mozart and Brahms on the classical-music playbill this weekend is a 400-pound, six-foot-long contraption whose voice is as rich and ancient as the southern cultures that spawned it.

Libby Larsen's Marimba Concerto, to be performed by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, brings together the two most basic human musical instincts--dance and the pounding of wood with a stick--on an instrument that usually hides behind an orchestral sea of white shirts and black dresses. The marimba's odd relations get to join the spotlight, too: Four CSO percussionists have mastered playing flower pots, a washboard, a wok top and a 55-gallon oil drum for the occasion.

"So much of the marimba is dance," says Larsen, a marathon runner and one of the nation's foremost living composers. "You need to be very light on your feet. You need to be very strong. You need to be very graceful. The way the body moves is the way the marimba sounds."

The marimba, an African-born instrument that crossed the seas to Latin America centuries ago, only worked its way into the European-dominated classical-music repertoire in recent years. The CSO has purchased a new five-octave marimba for the occasion; built in Holland, the $8,000 instrument resembles a V-shaped table consisting of "keys" made from seasoned Honduran rosewood.

Larsen's 25-minute concerto, which CSO music director Marin Alsop will conduct in its Colorado premiere, features three movements: The first is chordal and mysterious; the second blends "sound colors" rather than melody; and the third--an exotic weave of percussive sounds ranging from a rainstick to mallets on automobile brake drums--"is so fast it's driving me crazy," says John Kinzie, CSO's principal percussionist and the concert's featured soloist. Kinzie will drum, tremolo, pound and pelt the keys with five different sets of mallets, two per hand, sometimes with both arms outstretched to reach the breadth of the keyboard. "It's like Jazzercise," he says.

Larsen's idiomatic use of the instrument is refreshing, says Kinzie, a thirteen-year veteran of the CSO. "Some composers would write for the marimba on the piano or on computer," without an instinctual understanding of its range and soul, he says. Larsen's use of the instrument's potential makes it seem "like she herself plays the marimba."

Not quite. In writing the piece, which was commissioned by twelve orchestras, Larsen worked closely with marimba teachers and performers. She zeroed in on the marimba's voice because, she says, "I wanted to write a piece that explores the melody of percussion. We live in a very percussive society. You find more vibrant rhythm in our culture than melody."

Larsen subtitled her concerto "After Hampton" as a salute to Lionel Hampton. "He was the first person to bring a mallet instrument--in his case it was the vibraphone--into the solo position," says Larsen, who often fuses elements of jazz, blues and pop music into her classical works. "He basically could speak our American culture right through his instrument. I wanted to acknowledge Hampton and at the same time acknowledge the change in musical language. When jazz stars brought their music into the forefront, it changed the music that we write in this country forever."

--Gayle Worland

Mozart's Symphony No. 29, Larsen's Marimba Concerto and Brahms's Symphony No. 1, performed by the CSO, Friday-Saturday, November 13 & 14, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, November 15, at 2:30 p.m., Boettcher Concert Hall. $12 to $46, 303-830-8497.

 
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