Classical: The Wigmore's banged to rights

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On Friday, the Wigmore Hall waves goodbye to Mozart and welcomes the Ethos Percussion Group playing a modern programme of John Cage and Minoru Miki

It's not often that the hallowed auditorium that is London's Wigmore Hall resounds to the exotic timbres of percussion, but it will next Friday, when the virtuoso quartet The Ethos Percussion Group (right) makes its debut there. The young American foursome gave its Carnegie Hall debut two years ago and now mirrors that success on this side of the Atlantic with a similarly prestigious London debut. But was it difficult to book the Wigmore for a percussion recital?

"Well, obviously you have to be of a certain standard of music-ianship," says one of the group's members, Joseph Gramley. "But the Wigmore certainly isn't snooty about percussion just because it's percussion. I think Evelyn Glennie made her debut there about 10 years ago now; and, since then, one or two other percussionists have stepped through the doors, too. But I don't think they've ever presented a percussion quartet before."

The young Gramley has already spent years studying both timpani and percussion, but soon decided against a career as an orchestral timpanist. "Sitting around for long stretches of a Mozart opera, say, before coming in with a few taps wasn't exactly my idea of fun - not that I don't enjoy Mozart operas... as a listener. But, as a player, there is now this increasingly large and exciting world of percussion to explore, and I wanted to be part of it." And more than a taster of that intriguing world comes in Ethos's packed recital which explores a gamut of material from John Cage to one of the group's own compositions.

"Though we tend to think of the solo percussive repertoire as a relatively new phenomenon, it has actually been around for the greater part of this century," says Gramley. "And it originated Stateside, so is a fundamental part of our musical heritage, with people like John Cage, Lou Harrison and Henry Cowell. Cage's Third Construction, with which we end, was composed as early as 1941. It's a very deceptive piece, on one level, it seems Cage is just banging around on various pieces of exotic junk he found in a scrap-yard, yet it's very intricately composed and, as the title suggests, constructed."

Gramley also makes "a distinction between tuned and untuned percussion. Many compositions employ both, but it's perhaps instruments like the marimba which really demonstrate the melodious side of percussion writing. I'd say that to play the marimba expertly needs as much practice as being a solo pianist; and one can virtually achieve as much colour with it as a piano. Our concert shows up two sides of the instrument - in a Minimalist piece and in Minoru Miki's extraordinary 1984 composition, Marimba Spiritual." Talking of instruments, Gramley adds that "the logistics of giving a percussion concert 3,000 miles from home is something of a nightmare. We're bringing a lot of stuff with us and hiring some more here. Then, it's all got to be arranged on the relatively small Wigmore platform. Perhaps I should have become a violinist; after all..."

Thankfully, he didn't, for this evening of Ethos promises to be a revelation.

Ethos Percussion Group, Wigmore Hall, W1 (0171-935 2141) 6-7 Feb 7.30pm

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