The beat goes on

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Catherine Threlkeld /
Advocate staff photo by CATHERINE THRELKELD --
Daniel Law, 16, left, and Connor Matthews, 15, are oboists with the Louisiana Youth Orchestra.

Percussion ensemble gets chance to shine at Louisiana Youth Orchestras Concert

Joe Moore wants people to know that his students can do more than bang on drums.

The percussion doctoral candidate and director of the Louisiana Youth Orchestra’s Percussion Ensemble will showcase the range of the four member group at LYO’s upcoming concert Sunday, May 5.

“I chose a melodic keyboard piece and then one with drums. I wanted to show that these students can do both sides of percussion,” Moore said.

His first choice, “4/4 for Four” by Anthony J. Cirone, is in line with what people expect to hear from a percussion ensemble, he said. The piece has the four percussionists playing bongo drums, tom toms, bass drum and timbales.

During a recent rehearsal, Abby Cohen was absent, leaving Zach Bergeron, Andres Aguilar and Sam Ard to practice as a trio. Bergeron, at 14 the youngest member of the group, played bongos while Aguilar and Ard played on separate sets of four tom toms. Though often thought of as hand drums, many recent compositions call for using drumsticks on the bongo drums, Moore said. Bongos are a pair of small drums that can be set in the lap or mounted on a stand.

In “4/4 for Four,” the bongos sound high and driving against the lower-pitched, larger tom toms, which are also played with drumsticks.

The second piece Moore chose for his students, “Stubernic” by Marc Ford, requires a marimba, a large xylophone-like instrument with tubes attached to the keys that amplify the sound and alter its tone.

For the rehearsal, Aguilar and Bergeron played the marimba together, hitting the keys with soft-tipped mallets. Normally, Cohen stands between them, so that the three are nearly shoulder-to-shoulder. As they play, they move up and down the keyboard. The piece is almost dance-like; a few times, the musician on the end walks quickly around the instrument and begins playing at the opposite side. After the rehearsal, Moore takes Cohen’s role for a moment to demonstrate.

Later in the piece, two of the three musicians squat down on the floor and play the front and sides of the instrument for a more percussive effect, he said.

Formed in 2000, the Percussion Ensemble consists of members of the Louisiana Youth Orchestra and the Louisiana Junior Youth Orchestra. Moore became the director of the ensemble in the fall. Under his direction, the students study technique as well as rehearse for their performances at the LYO concerts.

Ranging in age from 14 to 18 years, the ensemble members play a range of instruments, even occasionally using their own hands or voices. In one concert, the ensemble performed “Clapping Music” by Steve Reich. The piece uses no instruments, only the musicians’ hands.

They have also performed a work by John Cage that requires only small wooden instruments such as blocks and “Wart Hog #3,” a composition by Austin Wrinkle that uses hand-drumming and the musicians’ voices to create percussive effects.

For percussionists, equipment is always a problem, not only finding, but also transporting it.

Moore said that he will probably transport the instruments for the upcoming LYO concert himself. The dining room table-sized marimba can be disassembled and the large drums can be removed from their stands to make the task somewhat less arduous.

Unlike many musicians, percussionists don’t get much practice time at home, especially when specialized instruments are required. Some of the students have marimbas at their schools that they can use but finding instruments on which to practice is always a challenge.

The LYO has an agreement with LSU through percussion professor Brett Dietz which allows the youth orchestra to use the rehearsal space in the basement of the Music and Dramatic Arts Building and to borrow LSU instruments for rehearsal and concerts.

The selection of pieces to play in concert is influenced by what instruments are required, Moore said. He also takes into account the skill level of the students and sometimes the two considerations complement each other. “Easier pieces often require less equipment,” he said.

Not that the music the ensemble plays is especially easy.

Moore doesn’t arrange or “dumb down” any of the music the students perform. All are accomplished young players.

Ard was accepted into a workshop for percussionists at the prestigious Julliard School in New York that will take place this summer.

Aguilar, the only graduating senior in the group, will play in the UL Lafayette marching band next year. He plans to study music education and business.

The other members of the Louisiana Youth Orchestras are also some of the best in their age groups. The Louisiana Youth Orchestra is open to string players ages 15-20 and wind players ages 16-20. Musicians must audition for placement.

The Louisiana Junior Youth Orchestra is for middle school students and also requires an audition.

For younger players, the Louisiana Junior String Ensemble consists of string players in the sixth grade and younger.

Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra’s assistant conductor David Torns leads the top orchestra and has been music director of the LYO program since 2003.

“This concert is special because it features the winner of our concerto contest,” Torns said.

The featured student, violinist Katie Foto, will play “Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor” by J.S. Bach. The orchestra will also perform an excerpt from Swan Lake by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Christopher Lowry’s “Celebration Overture.”