Offering more than just the backbeat to a hit pop song or the marching band, the drums — and so much more — in the Rowan Percussion Ensemble take the sound these instruments create to a new level. On Nov. 19, the Ensemble brought this skill to bear on the World Premiere performance of a piece specially commissioned for Rowan University and Professor Dean Witten.
Witten, who joined the faculty here in 1979, celebrated his 100th concert as director of the Percussion Ensemble that night with, among other things, the debut of award-winning composer Jennifer Higdon’s “Like ClockWork.”
Higdon, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Music and a 2010 Grammy Award, is one of the most acclaimed composers working today. In addition to those accolades, she has been honored by the Serge Koussevitzky Foundation, Guggenheim Foundation, American Academy of Arts & Letters, Pew Fellowship in the Arts and ASCAP; plus an extensive list of commissions from some of the top orchestras and ensembles in the world.
“These percussionists played the holy heck out of it,” Higdon raved after the performance. “It’s a really difficult piece and they played it beautifully.”
Stephen Fleming, a freshman music major in the ensemble, was overwhelmed following the concert.
“This was one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” he said. “It was very cool to be a part of a piece this ‘big' and to perform it in front of the composer was an honor.”
As a member of the audience, Higdon returned the compliment, praising the students and calling the evening “inspiring.”
“You hear it in your head, but to hear it played so well is magic,” she said about listening to her own work for the first time. “I loved seeing the smiles on the players’ faces, which came from recognizing their accomplishment.”
“The inspiration was entirely Dean and the percussionists who have studied with him,” she remarked about creating the piece in the first place. “The caliber of performer that comes out of his studio inspired me to write a piece that would be challenging and colorful, and fun to listen to. When there is an excellent teacher, a composer knows that the performance will be good.”
The night was also notable for the tribute it paid to Witten, bringing together percussion alumni, as well as members of the Rowan community and fans of the music.
"It is impossible to accurately say what it feels like to have so many of my former students attend my 100th concert celebration at Rowan. The present and former students who attended proved to me that a life worth living is one in which one touches the hearts and souls of other people in a positive way,” Witten stated. “They allowed me to do that with each one of them and those memories continue to warm my heart every day of my life."
Witten may be just as proud that the composition will continue representing the University to any and all who play or listen to “Like Clockwork” in the future.
“Every time the piece goes out now, we (Rowan) are on the cover,” Witten noted.