CD Review: “Kid Stuff” – Soli for Piano with Percussion Orchestra

CD Review: “Kid Stuff” – Soli for Piano with Percussion Orchestra

McCormick Percussion Group; Robert McCormick, Director; Eunmi Ko, piano;
Music of John Liberatore, Seunghee Lee, Hilary Tann, Ciro Scotto, and Matt Barber
Ravello Records, LLC, an imprint of Parma Recordings LLC, 2018
Recorded at the Springs Theatre in Tampa, Florida
Recording Engineer, John Stephan; Executive Producer, Bob Lord


“Kid Stuff” is an intriguing new percussion ensemble CD just released on the Ravello Records label and featuring performances by the McCormick Percussion Group under Robert McCormick with pianist Eunmi Ko. The disc is named after the longest work on it, Kid Stuff (composed 2015-17, subtitled Five Figments for Piano and Percussion) by composer Matt Barber (b. 1980), but the CD also contains four substantial compositions by composers John Liberatore, Seunghee Lee, Hilary Tann, and Ciro Scotto.

Though the subtitle of this disc, Soli for Piano with Percussion Orchestra, may set the listener up for something along the lines of the most notable piano-percussion compositions, such as Bartók’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Percussion, this disc favors much more heavily the ensemble instruments, often treating the piano as simply part of the group or even submerging its sounds amid the percussive textures of the marimba, xylophone, and other instruments.

Such an aesthetic is understandable in this case, as the McCormick Percussion Group is, on its own, a virtuoso ensemble with superb synchronization and the ability to realize highly complex scores. That said, piano soloists spend much of their lives striving for long legato lines or at least the illusion of such, and – without engaging in that age-old debate about whether piano should be categorized as a percussion instrument – movements where such piano lines came to the fore emerged as high points for this reviewer.

This Light That Pours from the four movements, This Living Air (2015), by John Liberatore was one such high point. It is a movement inspired by the poem of the same name by Garrett Brown (as are the other three movements, For Scraps of Manna, Mandrake, and It is not the Mold), and through Liberatore’s sensitive writing, the poem’s subject comes to life. From the movement’s quiet opening, pianist Eunmi Ko establishes a contemplative mood and luminous tone, gaining color and resonance through the percussion ensemble’s delicate shadings. It is a hauntingly beautiful performance. The remaining three movements of the Liberatore set are engaging in their own way – brimming with infectious patterns and brilliantly rhythmic writing – though pride of place still goes to The Light That Pours.

Considering this reviewer’s piano predilections, it may not be surprising that another highlight of this disc is a movement that borrows heavily from the Berceuse in D-flat major, Op. 57 of Frédéric Chopin, the fourth piece of Matt Barber’s Kid Stuff, entitled Cuddleys. Inspired by the composer’s infant twin daughters and a quotation from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake (“what chance cuddleys…”), it is an ingenious melding of some of Chopin’s lullaby (now in G major) with the “thousands of new stimuli” that confront a vulnerable infant, all represented in the artfully “random” percussion accompanying the rocking piano part. Here is another “keeper” for this reviewer. Surrounding this movement are the playful and fantasy-filled explorations of Chimera, Night Owl, Quench, and, perhaps the most playful of all, Goofball. Each one, in its own way, reflects a fertile compositional imagination, and each is dazzlingly performed by pianist and ensemble alike.

The balance of the CD is made up of three quite different works, Pung-Kyung (2016) by Seunghee Lee, Solstice (2013) by Hilary Tann, and Dark Paradise (2016) by Ciro Scotto. Each maximized the performers’ special qualities in different ways.

Pung-Kyung, a word which the composer tells us has two meanings – both scenery and wind chime – is an apt title for this exploration of percussive tone painting. As Ms. Lee states, she uses some “repetitive yet unpredictable patterns of Korean traditional music” in evoking the mysterious lushness of an imagined Korean countryside. Timbral “images” suggest intermittent rains, rivers, sudden movements, and other fluctuations one recognizes in all nature but with a particularly exotic atmosphere here. It was good to hear such an idiomatic piano part, surely reflective of the composer’s background as pianist. One can imagine this piece finding itself welcome on many programs.

Dark Paradise, one of the lengthier works on the CD (at 13:06), is perhaps best described by its composer, Ciro Scotto, who writes that it “evokes a trip to an alien world that is simultaneously enticing but fills one with anxiety, stable and unstable, familiar and unfamiliar, and perhaps darker than earth.” Running the gamut of percussive techniques and instruments, with the pianist Eunmi Ko playing claves and crotales as well as the piano, the piece creates quite a sonic journey!

Solstice, by Welsh-born Hilary Tann, is the one duo on the CD, a pairing of pianist Eunmi Ko with marimbist Michael Skillern. An involved and imaginative work based on the writing of Adirondack woodswoman, Anne LaBastille, it is divided into the sections White Pines, Lilypad Lake, and Kestrel, bookended by preludes to spring and winter. Piano and marimba are perfectly paired here in the evocation of icy and woodsy tones, full of timbral variety and yet remarkably unified by these two fine players.

 All in all, this CD makes a fascinating collection. For its important new contributions to the percussion repertoire and the sheer expertise in performance, it seems destined to become a staple in the libraries of percussion aficionados at the very least. A number of the works here may also reach a much wider audience as well.

Eunmi Ko in Review

Eunmi Ko in Review

Eunmi Ko, Piano
Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
June 3, 2014


Pianist Eunmi Ko gave an exceedingly interesting recital at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall on the evening of June 3, 2014. Her programming was original, as were her interpretations. In general, her strengths are an abundance of technique, as well as a beautiful array of pianistic colors, particularly in the soft dynamic levels.

She began with Mécanisme, the first movement of the two-movement work Dichotomie (2000), by conductor/composer Esa-Pekka Salonen (b. 1958), which she plunged into without even waiting for the welcoming applause to die down. The piece has a certain steely resolve that suits its title, as well as an over-reliance on glissandi; but it creates sonorities that are not often heard from the piano, particularly in Ko’s headlong, momentum-filled rendition. In the composer’s own words: “Mécanisme, is indeed like a machine, but not a perfect one: more like one of the Tinguely sculptures (or mobiles, they really defy all attempts to categorize them), which are very active, extroverted and expressive, but produce nothing concrete. I imagined a machine that could feel some sort of joie de vivre, and in that process, i.e. becoming human, would lose its cold precision.”

Then came the poignant cycle O matince, Op. 28 (About Mother), by Czech composer Josef Suk (1874-1935). Composed in 1907, its five sections are reflective of the various functions of a mother in the course of her life. Obsessive pedal points are found in each movement, symbolizing different things: the enthusiasm of the young mother, springtime, singing to comfort a sick child, her own heartbeat, and finally a remembrance, presumably after the death of the mother. The music was beautifully presented by Ms. Ko, with gleaming color and balances, making it sound more like forward-looking Janáček than a fond look backward to the nineteenth century.

After intermission came a New York premiere with the neo-Baroque high jinks of John Liberatore’s She Rose, and let me in: Variations and Fugue on a Scottish Folk Song, after F. J. Haydn (2013), which takes as its pretext the words to a folksong about seduction, intercourse, unintended pregnancy, and regret, all wrapped up in a happy ending. As Mr. Liberatore’s own aesthetic statement says: “He endeavors to bring together seemingly contradictory aesthetic tendencies: nuance with overtness, strangeness with purpose, levity with depth and sincerity, and outward simplicity with subtle complexity.” All of which was achieved in this witty, whimsical, sometimes abrupt work, whose accessibility to the listener masks its difficulty for the pianist. Ms. Ko had no trouble clarifying the textures, especially in the Fugue. In the concluding Epilogue, played at the softest dynamic levels achievable on the piano, where individual notes from the theme and its variations are heard individually with extreme registral transposition. It was the loveliest playing of the evening, and it was truly magical. The composer, present in the sparse but enthusiastic audience, was duly honored, and must have been pleased.

To conclude, Ms. Ko played an often-heard masterpiece from the core nineteenth-century repertoire: Schumann’s Fantasie, Op. 17. To this work she brought a fierce momentum, organizing it toward the “long line” rather than allowing herself to get caught up in myriad details. This approach resulted in a different interpretation for the piece than one often hears, and I quickly became accustomed to it, usually with pleasure. Her tone was liquid, and there was plenty of poetry, but not bathos or sentimentality. The concluding chords of the first movement seemed to emanate from another world, so quiet were they. In the famously terrifying (to pianists) “skips” of the second movement, she plunged with abandon, the tempo pressing forward boldly. One could forgive the occasional missed note in light of the sheer drive. She brought out a puckish or impish side that is rarely heard in this movement. For me, the only blemish of the recital was the third section of this work, played too quickly and which ended far too loudly, as though Ms. Ko was afraid to let the piece become introverted again, as it should. This work has always been a programming challenge for pianists: where to put it, precisely because of this soft ending. Have courage, pianists!

She offered an encore: Chopin’s Etude Op. 10, No.4, played at a cartoon-chase tempo, way too fast for any poetic musical sense to emerge, but astonishing as a feat of sheer digital prowess. It was a well-earned romp after a well-played demanding program.