Marimba mavens are not many. The two-week Zeltsman Marimba Festival, which runs through Saturday at the Colburn School, may have generated publicity and feature stories. New works, we are told, have been commissioned by top composers, although specifics on the festival’s website are few. But generally, there is still a closed world of enthusiasts for the mallet instrument that doesn’t have quite the zing of the xylophone nor the solo tradition of vibraphone but that can make a beautifully resonant sound.
The audience for a Zipper Concert Hall recital Tuesday night by Theodore Milkov and Peter Prommel -- who are on the faculty of the festival, which is also a workshop for young players -- seemed to be limited to the festival’s few dozen students and a handful of associates. Almost everything about the evening, including what was played, felt like inside baseball.
One part of the program consisted of five Scarlatti harpsichord sonatas transcribed for marimba and performed by Milkov, a young Greek. Prommel, a prominent Dutch percussionist, selected works by a number of composers -- Feldman, Piazzolla, Stockhausen, Bach, Cage, Gubaidulina, R. Ford, Özgen -- but only those last names were scattered on the printed program.
There were no program notes, no indication even of the order of the composers. But an introduction by Prommel read from the stage by the festival founder, Nancy Zeltsman, explained that the theme was “Death, the last minutes of life, when chemics roar through the body, emotions and feelings pass through the brain.”
The evening began with a 13-minute electronic work by Stockhausen, “KOMET,” with a bit of mostly inaudible live contributions from the marimbists. The Scarlatti sonatas, originally meant to be the first half of the program, were interspersed among the other pieces instead. One work merged into the next for 75 minutes. Schubert’s song “The Erl King,” blandly transcribed for two marimbas, came last.
Sometimes I could recognize a composer or even a specific work. Piazzolla’s tango style is unmistakable even through a haze of marimba resonances. But these are not charismatic players and too often seemed prisoners in an indistinct, watery limbo of reverberation.
The marimba, for instance, is an anti-harpsichord. The sound of plucked strings is dry and dissipates quickly. The marimba’s timbre, on the other hand, is warm and wet and sticks around for a while, so that in fast passages, notes blend.
Scarlatti’s sonatas are fast, tight, scintillating. Milkov is fast with his sticks (but still slow for Scarlatti), and in the upper range he occasionally produced interesting effects. But rather than radically rethink Baroque music for a new sound world, he doggedly tried to make it fit where it doesn’t.
Elsewhere, there were nice moments. In one piece (which one?), both marimba players bowed their instruments, and the air seemed to shimmer. Perhaps this was meant to express the profound inscrutability of death -- unlike most of the evening, which came closer to describing last moments muffled by a fog of painkillers. The small audience was enthusiastic.