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UK percussion ensemble performs a world premiere composition

Matthew Mueller
A musician preforms during the precision ensemble On Sunday Oct, 29. 2023 at the University of Kentucky Percussion Ensemble. Photo by Matthew Mueller | Staff

The School of Music at the University of Kentucky presented the UK Percussion Ensemble at the Singletary Center Concert Hall with free tickets for all attendees.

The ensemble was based on the world premiere of “Breaking Nebula” by James Beckner, a UK junior majoring in music education and performance who is also the UK Percussion Society (UKPS) president. 

Based on the notes in the program given at the entrance to the concert hall, Beckner said that the stories of the independent six pieces performed have a personal and conflicting background of losses that led to the finale that he composed — “Breaking Nebula.”

“‘Breaking Nebula’ is the final movement to the piece … I wanted to depict an overwhelming joy and appreciation for life and the moments we have together on Earth,” Beckner wrote in the program. “While the comfort of our dreams seems to be a compelling distraction from reality, I have yet to find anything more beautiful than the people who I share my waking moments with.”

Joshua D. Smith, visiting lecturer of percussion at UK, directed the ensemble along with Jeremiah Ingram and Kyle McElroy, both assistant conductors and UK graduate students.

“We are very fortunate here at the University of Kentucky to attract a wide range of students from not just in Kentucky but from all over the country,” Smith said. “We also are fortunate here to have a very strong tradition of graduate students that come in, study and also take over some of the teaching responsibilities to get experience, so they can go on and run their own percussion studio.”

“Half Light” (2017), “Death Wish” (2017), “Escape x 12” (2018), “Hands” (2021), “Ice Dance” (2002) and “Bulldog” (2021) are pieces that together depict the main themes of the compositions: emotional health and self-discovery. 

“I began to write “Dream Atlas” in the beginning of 2022 as sketches for full orchestra, inspired by a series of reoccurring dreams I had following the passing of my father in 2014,” Beckner wrote in the program. “In the dreams, I would see vivid galaxies that brought extreme, yet confusing emotions to me, hence why I named each movement after ‘space-related’ environments. Later in life I would find out these dreams were ‘nocturnal panic attacks.’”

Before the performance of “Ice Dance” by Anders Astrand, the director said that having a percussion ensemble at UK is a representation of innovation not typically seen in the past years.

“In the history of instrumental music and ensembles, percussion ensemble is sort of the baby on music ensemble where our literature and music that has written specifically for this group were just now over a hundred years old,” Smith said. “In spite of that, percussion ensemble is more and more being utilized in movie soundtrack and other kinds of venues.”

Jasmine Sturgeon, a senior at UK majoring in arts administration with a percussion music performance minor and UKPS’s vice president, shared details about the rehearsal and the performance’s behind-the-scenes.

“Each piece rehearses by themselves so we do it Monday, literally every day of the week, Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 8:50 … and then we have Tuesday and Thursday slots that are five to seven,” Sturgeon said. “So, we rehearse individually with our own parts and we just bring it together here, so when we rehearse we kinda just chunk it out a lot of the times and, at the end, you finally get some runs where you run the full piece.”

Sturgeon highlighted the uniqueness of performing a world premiere for the first time with Beckner.

“I was on the Breaking Nebula piece … he (Beckner) composed that … having the composer in the room during rehearsals is absolutely insane, so you got composer feedback as well as our director Dr. Joshua Smith, we had his feedback and leadership during the rehearsals as well,” Sturgeon said.

With the performance being a world premiere, Sturgeon said she felt relieved of the pressure after playing it for the first time.

“I’m so happy, I can’t stop smiling. I feel like I just can like let out of breath because I was so nervous, I mean that’s a world premiere piece, so no one’s ever heard it … so I feel so happy and sweaty,” Sturgeon said.

Part of the audience was composed of the performers’s family members and some other UK students.

“It was a great performance, interesting and challenging,” said Cary Shields, a parent of one of the ensemble’s performers.

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