A Stable of Percussionists at the Barnes Foundation

Gloria Krolak BY

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Tony Miceli, A-list vibes player and creator of the online Vibes Workshop, is a generous man. He shared his recent First Friday gig at the Barnes Foundation on Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia with a round-up of the Malletech company's stable of mallet masters.

After brainstorming with Leigh Howard Stevens, owner of Malletech, the two came up with an array of percussionists across genres—chamber music to jazz—to share with foundation members and guests. They included jazz vibes headliners Warren Wolf and Stefon Harris. The program even included a medley of tunes written by the English rock group Radiohead by the duo, Escape Ten.

Stevens is a composer, performer, music publisher, educator and author. He has designed marimbas, improved the vibraphone, and created his own mallets at his Neptune NJ-based factory. Time Magazine named him "the world's greatest classical marimbist." He is also known for creating the Stevens Technique which, simply stated, is a grip that keeps the two mallets in each hand from crossing each other.

Standing amid polished marimbas from his factory, Stevens was the first to perform in the two-story rectangular performance space. He opened the program with a sarabande, a dance in triple meter, from Bach's cello suites interpreted for marimba. Spellbound listeners on three sides watched Stevens perform two originals, a darker piece, "Houdini's Last Trip," and "Rhythmic Caprice" with three signature percussion tricks, one of them his "marim shot," where the mallet head and stick hit the bar in quick succession.

Escape Ten, a duo of Dr. Annie Stevens (no relation to Leigh) and Andrea Venet took center stage with a classical composition by Ivan Trevino, "Two Plus One." Check it out on YouTube. Facing each other over one marimba Venet must play the instrument backwards! Also on YouTube, you can watch Venet's strikingly modern Radiohead medley of "Weird Fish" and "Pyramids," with Annie Stevens on marimba and Venet on vibraphone, wee piano and bells. The two women played their last piece, "Catching Shadows," also by Trevino, on two marimbas. It turned out to be both tightly woven yet airy, no mean feat.

After an intermission where you could choose to attend a talk on Pennsylvania German furniture, it was jazz time. With veterans Lee Smith on bass and Byron Landham on drums, the melodic Miceli hushed the crowd with three standards, "My Secret Love," "When You Wish Upon A Star," and "Alone Together."

Warren Wolf, arguably the most buff vibraphonist on the scene, offered two more well-received standards, "On the Sunny Side of the Street," and "All The Things You Are." Wolf lets his notes ring through; his touch is fine and sure. Stefon Harris insisted that Wolf accompany him on piano in another limelight-sharing moment, a surprise to those who were unaware that Wolf is also an accomplished pianist. Harris is panther-like in his approach to the vibes, all sleek and efficient. His improvs on "I Fall In Love Too Easily" and "Bye Bye Blackbird" brimmed with imagination and color.

Not exactly Barnes-yard animals but none-the-less entertaining were the Xylopholks, a duo specializing in ragtime and dressed as a skunk, (xylophonist Jon Singer), and a pink ape, (bassist Steve Whipple). How they manage to play anything at all wearing gloves, big feet and long fur, let alone their presto-paced "Whistler," is astounding. The zoological get-up began with their "engagements" in the New York City subways playing for tips, but seems to have become part of their identity. The pair knows how to command attention and then win over a crowd with their virtuosity.

First Fridays is the foundation's strategy for entertaining members and enticing newcomers into the museum to enjoy its rare collection, explained Katherine Ogilvie Green, the public programs manager. A further enticement to First Friday events is the guided tour of one facet of the art and furniture in the building, the collection of Albert C. Barnes, a Philadelphia native, medical doctor, chemist, art collector and historian.

Museum staff sold quick bites and drinks throughout the performances, the German menu tying in with the lecture. Seating is informal and unassigned. You might get lucky and land free street parking—metering is only until seven and the performance starts thereabouts. There is also a parking garage. $25 admission to non-members and free to members.

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