In the American monastery

Joey Hill

Kicking off its series of performances linking the Nelson-Atkins and the UMKC Conservatory, the first “Conservatory Connections,” featuring Christopher McLaurin, filled an upper-floor gallery with distinct percussion sound last Saturday.

Walking through the warm, deep red walls of the Italian galleries and the still white space of the sculpture gallery on the lower floors of the Nelson, one could hear the resonating sounds of the marimba. Echoing from upstairs, the sound flooded the rooms and flowed into the center atrium where it mingled with the busy noise of the Roselle Court Café.

The music was coming from Gallery 220 of the second floor, which housed the museum’s collection of American art. The gallery space itself was an octagonal shaped room that connected the large hallways, which led into the Asian and Middle Eastern wings of the museum. On the walls hung a variety of different paintings from the stoic representation of a cowboy in Peter Hurd’s “Portrait of Jose Herrera” to the collection of Thomas Hart Benton paintings that hung on the room’s south wall.

Performing on the marimba and the snare drum was Christopher McLaurin, Principal Percussionist to the Kansas City Symphony. He played a variety of songs on the two instruments but remained on the marimba for most of the performance. The marimba is an instrument played with mallets similar to a xylophone, though it is much larger. In such a small space, the instrument created a resonating tone which made the performance sound like it was happening inside a giant music box.

Because he was primarily playing works by Bach, McLaurin discussed the versatility of Bach’s music and how it can be performed with a number of instruments. “Piano, cello –  even if you played it on two trashcans that were perfectly tuned, Bach would sound excellent,” he said.

Playing the “G Minor Sonata” with 4 mallets, McLaurin filled with space with an ethereal sound that bounced off the walls. The sonata is a fugue, which is a composition that bases itself off of one single melody and then repeats it, alters it, and then layers it again and again. On the marimba, the piece became a theme more fitting for a scene in Disney’s Fantasia showing lines of gnomes tinkering and building. With the corresponding echo of the space, the work was amped up to an almost holy cathedral state.

By using his surrounding  environment, McLaurin crafted an incredible and thoughtful performance that filled the gallery with sound.