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The biggest marimba event ever unfolds in Minnesota

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Marimba movement
Marimba mallets blur during a rehearsal at the University of Minnesota.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

That sound you may hear all over the Twin Cities in coming days is a marimba - or maybe many marimbas. Percussion performers from around the world are descending on Minnesota for "Marimba 2010" - maybe the biggest marimba event ever.

Ferba Meza, the director of percussion studies at the University of Minnesota and the driving force behind Marimba 2010, said the marimba sound is not well known.

"The easiest definition, I guess, is that it's an instrument closely related to the xylophone, because people know the xylophone more than a marimba. But the marimba is a luscious big round-sounding instrument," he said.

Those familiar with the sound of the marimba may also be familiar with the hassle that comes with moving the large instrument. 

Fernando Meza
Fernando Meza, creator of the Marimba Festival, leads a rehearsal for the event.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"This also comes with the territory, moving marimbas around, breaking them apart," Meza said. 

A student skillfully strips the huge wooden keys from a concert marimba. In a matter of seconds, the large instrument's frame is out the door.  It's needed for a recital upstairs in five minutes, and then a rehearsal in the basement in half an hour. 

Meza said the logistics will only get more complicated as more more marimbas and musicians arrive.

"It's basically the culmination of a personal dream for me. To be able to bring all these amazing people together to celebrate an instrument we all love and we are very passionate about," he said.

Meza said the marimba's legacy reaches back into prehistory, and Marimba 2010 will explore how it's found in different forms in Africa, South America and elsewhere. 

"There's never really been anything like this."

"There's never really been anything like this," he said.

The Minnesota Orchestra, the SPCO, the Schubert club, and a host of others will perform concerts featuring the marimba. There are also hourly recitals at the U of M.

Along the corridor in a huge rehearsal room a dozen students warm up. They will be playing Friday evening with VocalEssence at the St. Paul Cathedral. The concert will feature 20 marimbas, played by 30 percussionists, accompanying 130 voices.

The ensemble will also premier a piece by local composer Stephen Paulus at the concert. Having never done a marimba piece before, Paulus consulted Meza before writing. He discovered that the marimba offers many musical possibilities.

"There seems to be no figure too technical, too involved, too fast, too complicated that they can't tackle," Paulus said. 

Stephen Paulus
St. Paul-based composer Stephen Paulus was commissioned to create an opera for the St. John's Boys' Choir. Paulus' composition is called "The Star Gatherer."
MPR Photo/Tim Post

He was also delighted to create something to play in the St. Paul Cathedral where the acoustics allow a sound to carry for eight seconds. 

"The fact that marimbas can sort of roll chords and make this glow of sound made it wonderful to sort of sculpt something that would work specifically for that space," Paulus said. "It'll work in other spaces too, but it should have some special magic in the cathedral." 

The concert should be a homecoming of sorts for VocalEssence Music Director Phillip Brunelle, who  played marimba as a young man.

"The mellowness of the instruments is a wonderful compliment to the singing voice," he said.

In addition to the local performers, some 30 marimba players from around the world will appear at the festival. The concerts will range from traditional music from Ghana and Guatemala, to cutting edge percussion performances. 

Jason Treuting is a member of So Percussion, which will perform a new piece by Steve Reich at the Southern Theater. 

"He went to Africa to study for a summer," Treuting said. "And came back just really excited about what he could do with percussion, and wrote a lot for marimba. So this is the first time he has written for a really huge marimba, a five octave marimba."

Marimba players
University of Minnesota students rehearse a piece which they will play with VocalEssence at the St Paul Cathedral.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

So Percussion will also play the world premier of a piece by Twin Cities composer Mary Ellen Childs. Treuting said in recent months as he has toured with his group he has been hearing from many people around the country who will be heading to Marimba 2010. He said the instrument has become increasingly important.    

"For percussionists over the past, I don't know, maybe 20, 30 years, it's become an instrument to show a big virtuosity."

That virtuosity will be on show at Marimba 2010's opening concert on Wednesday evening at the Ted Mann Concert Hall at the U of M. Fernando Mesa said not only is the event free, it will feature marimba from around the world.

"We will have the National Marimba Ensemble from Guatemala, where the marimba is the national instrument by law. And we will have the Marimba Nandayapa from Mexico, from Chiapas," Meza said. "And we will have soloists from Poland, France, Serbia, the U.S."

And members of the University of Minnesota percussion ensemble, who are once again moving marimbas.