American Gifts presents new music for marimba duos

Full disclosure: I majored in keyboard percussion as an undergrad, specializing in marimba. So of COURSE I was looking forward to auditioning “American Gifts.”

And it didn’t disappoint. Jack Van Geem and Nancy Zeitsman are superb players. I was also impressed by the recorded sound.

The marimba has warm, resonant tones in its lower register and clear notes with sharp decay in the upper. Recording the instrument to balance the various timbres takes a little extra effort — which was taken here.

I was also impressed with the selection of music. Three of the selections were arranged from solo piano pieces. More than just transcription is involved — especially if you’re moving from one keyboard (the piano) to two (dual marimbas).

The arrangements were quite skillful, and seemed to lay well on the instruments. And I appreciated the choices. In my opinion, Irving Fine and Roger Sessions are a little undervalued in the field of American music.

Hearing Fine’s Music for Piano and Session’s Piano Sonata No. 1 was somewhat refreshing.

Joseph Brachett’s “Simple Gifts” is a piano piece based on the well-known tune. He deconstructs the hymn, shifting harmonic centers between phrases and reducing the melody to its basic components.

If, like me, you’re tired of this over-used tune, give “Simple Gifts” a listen. It’s refreshing.

Michael Tilson Thomas’ Island Music was composed for marimbas and percussion — and specifically for Van Geem and Zeitsman. Thomas does evoke island culture without resorting to musical cliches (no Baja Marimba Band here).

Thomas dedicated the work to Lou Harrison, and there are some stylistic similarities. Thoams keeps his harmonies simple and his rhythms complex. And I enjoyed it

American Gifts for Marimba Duo
Jack Van Geem and Nancy Zeitsman
Bridge Records 9534

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