Furman Percussion Ensemble drums up international acclaim
Music Professor Omar Carmenates, director of the Furman Percussion Ensemble, almost didn’t pick up when his phone rang one Monday in June.
“I saw the call was from Stillwater, Oklahoma,” he said, “and I don’t know anybody there. I don’t normally pick up calls when I don’t know who they’re from.”
He’s glad he did this time, though. The caller from Oklahoma was the chair of the committee that oversees the yearly Percussive Arts Society International Percussion Ensemble Competition, with the news that the Furman Percussion Ensemble had been chosen as one of 2022’s three winners.
“This is like winning the NCAA tournament,” Carmenates said. “This is the absolute highest honor for a percussion ensemble. It’s a program-defining statement for our students.”
To compete, a school must submit a 30-minute audio recording of the ensemble performing live within the past three semesters. The entries are then judged blindly. Furman’s recording consisted mostly of pieces the ensemble performed in its spring 2022 concerts.
A reverb-drenched marimba quartet, “Shell,” by composer Emma O’Halloran, was one of the pieces submitted. Percussion ensembles also employ instruments such as xylophones, vibraphones, glockenspiels, cymbals, electronic instruments and, of course, a host of drums – “anything you can hit,” Carmenates said – to provide both melody and rhythm.
Listen to “Shell,” performed by the Furman Percussion Ensemble
As part of the IPEC honor, the students will perform a showcase concert at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention in Indianapolis this November in front of many of the world’s best percussionists.
“It’ll be 3,000 drummers all waiting to see what we’ve got,” Carmenates said.
Furman’s showcase will premiere four new works specifically composed for the occasion, three of which are by artists who have never composed for percussion ensemble before: DJ/turntablist Val Jeanty, California-based composer Kevin Shah and opera composer and Furman alum Frances Pollock ’12.
The compositions aren’t all complete yet, but “we’ve already started rehearsing remotely,” said Carmenates.
Furman shares the IPEC award with seasoned percussion ensembles from the Eastman School of Music and Texas Christian University, both previous IPEC winners. By contrast, this is Furman’s first time being selected as a winner.
“To say I am ecstatic would be an understatement,” said Charlie Gessner ’25. “Since last year, we’ve had our eyes set on the possibility of performing at PASIC. Throughout the spring semester, we worked hard to ensure that we could turn that vision into reality.”
“It feels fantastic to be able to represent Furman and the percussion community,” said Taryn Marks ’23, a percussion performance major. “Honestly, I have not stopped freaking out about it since Dr. Carmenates told us.”
The percussion program emphasizes well-rounded performers, said Gessner.
“None of us play only one instrument,” he said. “We study everything from funk drum set to Bach on marimba. In our IPEC recording, my part called for two tom drums, two metal plates, bass drum, marimba and stacked cymbals.”
Although many of the 12 undergraduates in the ensemble are music performance or music education majors, Carmenates notes that some are also non-music majors who “just want to be part of something special.”
And it is something special, Marks agreed.
“We all want a space where we can be comfortable and be our true selves, without any judgement or disrespect from anyone,” she said. “That is what we strive to do: to not only make beautiful music, but also show the love we have for each other.”