Park Ave. Armory

Sandbox Percussion Brings Intimacy and Connection to a Complicated Venue

The Park Avenue Armory, situated on New York City’s Upper East Side, essentially encompasses the complicated history of the United States: funded by the affluent Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Carnegies; built for the 7th New York Militia Regiment, a group of “Silk Stocking” volunteers from elite Gilded Age families who served in the Civil War — harking back to slavery and emancipation. The 7th Regiment Band was led by violinist Joseph Noll, who occasionally served as concertmaster for the New York Philharmonic. The history of the building is both political and musical, a current-day sticky wicket.

Walking toward the Veterans Room for Sandbox Percussion’s performance on Oct. 1, the first-floor hallway is filled with portraits of Civil War leaders. Among them is Elizabeth Colomba’s “Black feminist intervention,” a portrait of Minerva — the goddess of justice and victory — commissioned in 2021, just one year after George Floyd. Minerva stands alone and I can ground myself here; the painting being the “only one” was familiar, accurate, and, in an unfortunate way, welcoming.

Militaristic precision ushered in the beginning of Sandbox Percussion’s program. In their performance of Andy Akiho’s Haiku 2, the original instrumentation of trumpet, trombone, bass clarinet, and baritone voice is transformed into a glass bottle, pot lid, kettle, ceramic bowls, metal pipes, and blocks of wood. It’s a sort of literary piece, a metrical haiku following a five- and seven-syllable construction. But when set for percussion, the nuanced elements of the poetic form are eschewed, doing away with its oral syllabic breaths and pauses.

Sandbox Percussion performs at the Park Avenue Armory -- Photo by Stephanie Berger

Sandbox Percussion performs at the Park Avenue Armory — Photo by Stephanie Berger

Amy Beth Kirsten’s may the devil take me features the triangle, with all four of the percussionists — Jonathan Allen, Victor Caccese, Ian Rosenbaum, and Terry Sweeney — playing differently tuned triangles. It’s an excerpt from a larger work based on Don Quixote, who “believes himself to be a wise and noble knight, but in actuality, he’s sort of a pathetic character and has a broomstick for a sword and rusted armor,” the quartet explained before the performance. Drawing on this concept of a person’s self-perception conflicting with reality, Kirsten removes the expected resonance from the triangles, instead asking the quartet to strike them with the rubber-end of pliers, ceramic spoons, and glass straws. Though the work doesn’t offer much rhythmic variation, it does effectively achieve a number of unexpected sounds and timbres.

vv, by Juri Seo, featured two vibraphones played by two percussionists each, much like a piano four-hands piece, an enthralling concept. The inquisitive work freely mixes major and minor modes and takes flight in frequently trilled whole-tone scales. It dances, too, bringing to mind slushes of accumulated points in a video game and rushes of gadget sounds. But Seo gently brings us to stillness at its close.

Introducing the world premiere of Christopher Cerrone’s Ode to Joy, Sandbox Percussion noted that percussion ensembles don’t have centuries of repertoire to pull from and underscored the importance of commissioning living composers. The title of Cerrone’s work is not a reference to Beethoven, but to Frank O’Hara’s poem of the same name. Cerrone explained to the audience that his other pieces composed for Sandbox Percussion “have melancholy, anguish, anger, excitement — but they don’t have joy.” He also noted that “joy is quite hard to accomplish in life,” so the piece is about “the distance between wanting to have joy and occasionally actually accomplishing it.” It’s quite a melancholy take on joy, as was his piece. A whistling of wind came from lightly blowing into harmonicas, producing more air than melody. Marimba and vibraphone pulsed a bowed crotales theme into a crescendo. A surprise attack from bass and snare drums startled the audience, likely making several hearts skip a beat.

Viet Cuong’s Next Week’s Trees was initially an orchestral piece, and translating 60 musicians into two vibraphones and two marimbas was “an interesting challenge,” according to Sandbox Percussion. Their performance was the New York premiere of the work, which is inspired by a Mary Oliver poem. Growing from a single vibraphone statement, the melodic material is soon echoed by the other instruments, often slightly staggered, and establishing motivic loops that are rhythmically and melodically varied throughout — a clear theme and variations.

Sandbox Percussion performs at the Park Avenue Armory -- Photo by Stephanie Berger

Sandbox Percussion performs at the Park Avenue Armory — Photo by Stephanie Berger

Julius Eastman’s Joy Boy was the only piece on the program by a deceased composer, which the ensemble announced is unusual for them, and the reason why they choose these composers carefully. Eastman was known to compose for the people in the room, which resulted in lead sheets, rather than clear notation. The quartet opted to perform the work on two vibraphones, playing with the instruments, rather than merely on them, by using different techniques like holding rods in the same hands as their mallets so that each note rattled and ricocheted. They bounced ping pong balls off the metal vibraphone bars, steadying the rebound under cupped hands, which is how the energetic and minimalist piece felt: like a thought-provoking op-ed bouncing musical ideas around.

Throughout the performance, there was a bit of hand holding with the audience, explaining instruments, sounds, and processes, even polyrhythms — but this is something all percussion ensembles should do, and frequently don’t. It takes self-awareness for a percussion ensemble to recognize when an audience needs an explanation of percussion instruments in addition to the compositions. And it requires a similarly thoughtful and intentional ensemble to play the venue rather than just the music. The Veterans Room is cozy, cloaked entirely in wood, and intimate, with the audience on the floor with the instruments. Without the distance of a stage and the acoustics for sound to spread, the concert could have been aggressively loud and unbearable, but wasn’t. Instead, Sandbox Percussion offered excellent musicianship and a dazzling, up-close experience.


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