Taking mallets to the masses

Special to The Times

Marimba players of the world, unite!

That could be the motto of the Zelts- man Marimba Festival, an annual gathering of percussionists who have a special affection for the mallet instrument that's a mainstay of symphony orchestras and a close cousin of the smaller xylophone and the more resonant vibraphone.

The festival, first organized in 2001 by marimbist Nancy Zeltsman, has never made it to the West Coast. But that will change Sunday, when its seventh edition will take up residence for two weeks at the Colburn School downtown.

Zeltsman, 50, dreamed up the event while living in Princeton, N.J. She envisioned young marimbists from around the world coming together for a concentrated experience of master classes, recitals, lectures, networking and jamming.

But the result, held at Princeton University, "was so successful that we decided to continue," she recalled recently from Boston, where she chairs the percussion department at the Boston Conservatory. She also teaches at the city's Berklee College of Music and enjoys an active performing career.

The festival's itinerant nature may cause some to question its seriousness. Until this year, it has alternated between the Boston Conservatory and Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. Zeltsman maintains, however, that rootlessness has its advantages.

"The more locations we can present the festival in, the more audiences we can reach," she said, referring to the gathering's concerts -- free when students perform, modestly priced when faculty are featured. "We also get different participants by moving around. This year, we have 10 from central and Southern California who probably couldn't afford to come to Wisconsin. We're even thinking of doing a short festival in Beijing, Amsterdam or Japan, to bring ZMF international. But that's down the road."

In any case, because Zeltsman is revered in percussion circles, she has had no trouble attracting faculty and students. This year's student body runs to 46, the most yet.

"Usually, we have 32 to 42," she said, "and there tend to be about three repeat participants. But this year there are 12, including one from 2001."

She enforces no upper age limit for students -- there's a 41-year-old this year -- although she prefers they be at least 17. But rules were made for breaking, and she has three 16-year-olds this summer. The majority, though, remain in their mid-20s.

The teachers, for their part, are starry and diverse. In addition to Zeltsman, those at Colburn will include Jack Van Geem, principal percussionist of the San Francisco Symphony and a Colburn faculty member; Amy Knoles, executive director of the new-music group the EAR Unit and a founder of CalArts' department of electronic percussion; and Emil Richards, a renowned vibes player with a distinguished jazz career and about 2,000 movie and television soundtracks to his credit.

Whatever appeal teaching in general holds for these performers, it was Zeltsman's infectious drive that secured their participation.

"She has a tremendous amount of energy," says Van Geem, who has been associated with the festival since its inception and helped bring it to Colburn.

"Steve Mackey, the composer and her ex-husband, once said that she had an unnatural zeal for organization. And it shows."

Zeltsman also has a very open mind, at least according to Knoles, whose interest in avant-garde music helped push the limits of this year's event. Although acquainted, she and Zeltsman had not previously worked together. Yet Zeltsman was willing to let Knoles shape her own curriculum.

Electronic sounds

"When Nancy called to ask me to teach marimba, I suggested malletKAT," says Knoles, referring to a sort of electronic marimba with rubber pads instead of wooden keys. "I plug it into a computer and can have any sound I can imagine. I know I'll like working with Nancy because anything goes -- whatever you really want to do is fine with her. She's very trusting. And look at the diversity!"

Further praise comes from Richards, who at 76 is not just the oldest member of the faculty but also the only one to have worked with Arthur Fiedler, Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. He too wants to broaden the worldview of this year's participants.

"I want to expose these kids to more than just concertizing," he says. "Nancy has had jazz players on the faculty before, so I assume she wants her students to understand that they can move beyond the classical vein. The more they learn about popular music or jazz on their instrument, the more it will broaden their careers."

Yet one of Zeltsman's main goals is to secure a future for marimbists on the concert stage. Well before the festival was born, she was part of a duo with violinist Sharan Leventhal called Marimolin. Among its accomplishments were the premieres of nearly 80 works, several written for a competition that she and Leventhal sponsored.

"The biggest library of pieces for chamber music involving marimba is probably for marimba and violin," Zeltsman said, "because of how actively we went at that."

Now she's at it again, midway through a project distinguished by the dozen celebrated composers she has secured to write intermediate-level pieces for solo marimba. Among them are Louis Andriessen, Milton Babbitt, Anders Hillborg, Gunther Schuller, Steven Stucky, Michael Tilson Thomas and Chinary Ung. Most famous of all is singer-songwriter Paul Simon, who took Zeltsman's offer as a welcome challenge.

The three- to six-minute pieces, currently in various stages of completion, will be premiered next year when the festival returns to Wisconsin, but local audiences can hear a sneak preview next Saturday when Zeltsman will perform Simon's contribution in a recital.

From the not-so-famous

The festival is also holding a competition to find 12 works from lesser-known talents that can complement the big-name pieces. The motive is to provide a missing link between young marimbists' abilities and the complexities of the best new works written for their instrument.

"These musicians are going to be playing a lot of difficult contemporary music," Zeltsman said, "and they need something to get ready for those pieces."

The challenge is to create music that will not only help train players but also engage their interest -- and ideally that of audiences too.

"One of my models is 'Kinderszenen,' " Zeltsman said, invoking Robert Schumann's suite of nostalgic piano pieces.

"I played that when I was 11, and Vladimir Horowitz played it when he was 80. That's my goal: to present literature of that quality. My hope is that it will change the complexion of the marimba repertoire."

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Zeltsman Marimba Festival Concert Series

Where: Zipper Concert Hall, Colburn School, 200 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: Sunday to July 19

Price: Most events are $10

Contact: www.zmf.us

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday, July 08, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction Marimba byline: An article in Saturday's Calendar about the Zeltsman Marimba Festival carried an incorrect byline. The article was written by David Mermelstein, not David Mermelste.
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