Prof hits high notes on marimba at conference

Tristan Arnold

In Nashville, Tenn., the country music capital of the world, Michael Burritt, a Northwestern associate professor of percussion, added the sounds of marimba to the city’s guitar-rich past.

Thursday night Burritt performed his newly-composed “Concerto for Marimba and Chamber Orchestra” with the Northwestern University Chamber Orchestra and conductor Prof. Victor Yampolsky as part of the Percussive Arts Society International Conference. The four-day conference ends today at the Renaissance Hotel in Nashville. About 2,000 people were in attendance, Burritt estimated.

The marimba is a South American mallet-instrument similar to a xylophone, with wooden bars and a mellow tone.

“The orchestra played great. It was very exciting, and it was a great night for Northwestern,” Burritt said.

Burritt was asked by the Percussive Arts Society last year to play his then-in-progress concerto at the group’s annual convention. He approached Music Dean Toni-Marie Montgomery about bringing an orchestra to Nashville.

“(Montgomery) said, ‘Yeah. Let’s do it,'” Burritt said.

Yampolsky, who conducted the performance, said he was excited about the opportunity to perform with his colleague and has sought to infuse the works of American composers into the orchestral program’s repertoire. But he said that certain difficulties accompany the first performance of a composer’s first attempt at orchestral writing.

“The main reason it is very challenging is the notation,” Yampolsky said of the orchestral parts. “It’s not like (Burritt) wrote it, printed it, put it in front of conductor and it’s good to go.”

Throughout rehearsals, Yampolsky was in constant conference with Burritt, altering articulations and performance notes even during the final rehearsal Tuesday, one day before the orchestra boarded an 8 a.m. bus for Nashville.

Burritt said he had wanted to write a concerto for marimba and orchestra for several years, and he thought the three-movement work went well when it was premiered last month.

“I think people have really liked it,” Burritt said. “I’m very thankful and excited about how the piece is going over.”

He said the first two movements of the concerto were written first as solo marimba works and later orchestrated for string orchestra and percussion. He said he also wanted to compose a marimba piece because he thinks the instrument is neglected by judges when percussionists compete against their violin- and piano-playing peers.

“It’s not easy for us to win concerto competitions, and I’d like to see marimbas do that,” Burritt said. “I wanted to write something for the marimba with an orchestra that would be a great vehicle for the instrument and that would help people when they want to do those kind of competitions.”

Burritt, well-known for his solo marimba compositions, said he sought to create a work that exploited the instrument’s qualities without alienating audiences who likely had never heard the instrument.

“You’ve got an instrument they’re not used to hearing, so you’re giving them something already that’s strange,” Burritt said. “I wanted to have a piece that was tonal, and yet had some teeth to it.”

Despite receiving an overwhelmingly positive response after three performances, Burritt remained humble.

“I don’t know that it’s a great piece of music, that’s not for me to judge,” he said. “I’m not a Beethoven, obviously, and that’s not what I’m trying to be.”

Reach Tristan Arnold at [email protected].