A World Marimba Festival Finds its Way to HSU - Humboldt State Now

A World Marimba Festival Finds its Way to HSU

Once upon a time in the mid-1980s, a total stranger knocked on the office door of Humboldt State Music Professor Eugene Novotney.

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Ron Samuels of Arcata’s Marimba One and Nancy Zeltsman, founder and artistic director of the Zeltsman Marimba Festival, which is coming to Arcata June 30-July 13.

At the time, it wasn’t that unusual for a stranger to come calling. Novotney was brand new to the campus and then as now, the school and Arcata were home to thriving music colonies. When word spread of Novotney’s arrival in their midst, Redwood Coast percussionists lined up to be introduced.

Yet there was something different about this particular stranger. He wanted to build marimbas. He had studied at HSU, but hadn’t fetched up on Novotney’s doorstep to talk shop. No, he had a very express purpose in mind. He wanted to measure the dimensions of the professor’s marimba—right then and there. He had a tape measure at the ready.

“I knew in about two seconds,” Novotney chuckles, “that this guy wasn’t there to see me—he was there to see my marimba!”

The young stranger’s name was Ron Samuels. Today, his company, Marimba One in Arcata, is one of the most sought after manufacturers in the world, spanning global markets in Asia, Europe and the U.S.

Like Novotney, Samuels laughs at the memory of their first encounter. “I think he had two reactions: he wondered if I were some nut who had just walked in off the street—but an instant later I think he realized I might be serious about building marimbas. After the introductions, I just flat-out asked him, ‘May I measure your marimba? May I study it?’ He did say yes, he did decide to take me seriously that first day and we’ve been in touch ever since. Once I got going making marimbas, Eugene would come to my shop and give me evaluations. He was and is one of my best mentors.”

When the international Zeltsman Marimba Festival comes to HSU and Arcata June 30, it will re-unite steel drum doyen Novotney and Arcata builder Samuels with marimba master and festival namesake Nancy Zeltsman, the event’s artistic director. The three have known one another and worked together for three decades, lending added significance to the annual festival’s premiere in the Pacific Northwest at Humboldt State and the Arcata Playhouse.

“Nancy has committed her whole professional life to the marimba,” says Novotney, who will give an introductory class on the steel drum during the festival. “She is not only a world performer, but an internationally acclaimed teacher and author.”

Zeltsman has premiered more than 125 solo and chamber marimba works, including compositions by Paul Simon, Michael Tilson Thomas and Gunther Schuller. A recording artist, she has also taught marimba since 1993 in positions created expressly for her at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, the largest independent college of contemporary music in the world, whose alumni have won well more than 200 Grammy Awards; and at The Boston Conservatory, where she is chair of the Department of Percussion. She is the author of three books on marimba pedagogy and repertoire.

Novotney explains why Zeltsman is unique. “The main contribution of a number of other well-known players is expanding the marimba’s technical potential,” he observes. “Nancy has done that, too, of course. But what makes her really stand out is that she has expanded the marimba’s musicality. By that I mean the spirit of emotion in her performances, her unique interpretations, her way of connecting with her audience; so much so that her technique almost disappears into the expression. She’s extremely musical in everything she does.”

Samuels agrees. “Nancy has an unusually clear notion of the sheer sound of the marimba,” he says. “When you listen to her CD’s, you immediately grasp the difference from other players’ recordings. As for the festival, I’ve known Nancy for over 20 years and when she first started talking about it I knew she had a very clear vision for that, too.”

The festival will comprise eight concerts with Zeltsman and 60 of the best international performers of music that will range from contemporary to classical. “Many of Nancy’s artists are well-known marimba players who also play percussion,” Novotney says, “but although some of the concerts will be marimba only, they’ll also involve other mallet instruments like the vibraphone, plus a wide variety of other non-pitched percussion instruments.”

The President’s Office, the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, the Department of Music and HSU’s College of e-Learning and Extended Education are organizing the logistics, with participants staying on campus. Because the musicians are coming from various points of the globe, they are unable to bring their instruments with them, so the Department of Music is pitching in its inventory. “We’re basically lending Nancy everything but the kitchen sink!” Novotney enthuses.

Marimba One is providing eight five-octave concert marimbas for the festival and it will roll out an exclusive instrument of its own at the event: a marimba whose frame is made of ziricote, an exceptionally hard jungle wood found only in southern Mexico and Guatemala. Central American woods, including rosewood, are ideal building materials for marimbas because of their rich resonance.

As the rollout nears, Humboldt State students are busy with internships at the Arcata company, honing their business skills in preparation for the festival under the guidance of School of Business faculty member Shari Duron.

The eight concerts, open to the public, will run June 30 to July 13. Performances will be presented in solos and chamber ensembles. They will take place at two venues: the Native Forum adjoining Humboldt State’s Behavioral and Social Sciences Building and at festival co-sponsor Arcata Playhouse.

No advance reservations will be available. Tickets will go on sale at the door at 7:15 p.m. prior to each evening’s performance and at 12:15 p.m. on July 13. Prices are $10 for adults, $7 for students and seniors.

The full concert schedule and other details are posted at zmf.us/concerts_opento.