Few musicians have to choreograph their pieces just to play them.
But Richmond native and Purdue senior, Michael Bottorff did just that to perform Kurka’s "Concerto for Marimba and Orchestra" with the Purdue Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, April 22, in Elliott Hall.
Bottorff won the right to solo with the orchestra - and ultimately the right to choreograph - when he won the annual Purdue Bands Concerto Competition in February.
Standing in the center of the Elliott Hall’s huge stage to perform, a few weeks before he crosses the same stage to get a diploma, highlights a college career that’s taken him to new levels academically and musically.
"This is just a phenomenal experience," says Bottorff of his solo spotlight. "This is by far the greatest accomplishment of my musical career."
Bottorff’s mallets blur into tiny balls of energy, bouncing and dancing their away across the marimba, as he practices the Kurka concerto. The senior also sheds the formal decorum often associated with classical musicians as he performs his own dance behind the marimba to keep up with the demanding piece.
For years, the Kurka has been considered one of the hardest compositions for the marimba, and its challenges go beyond getting the notes right. "It is written specifically to be visual. That’s one of the unique qualities that makes it so difficult," Bottorff says.
Because he enjoys sports and athletics, the senior English education major was excited by the idea of playing a piece that required a lot of motion.
As a composer, "Kurka was intrigued by the visual and physical possibilities inherent in a marimba solo. There are many sections written in divergent octaves specifically to encourage body motion. In some sections it needs choreography to be played correctly," he says.
All the motion adds to the mood of the piece that Bottorff likens to raging teenage emotions. "Though you can’t necessarily see pictures or images, you can definitely feel an emotional story being told," he says.
"The first movement (the one Bottorff performed on April 22) is very disjointed and resembles a flustered teenager by making a simple melody complex and angry," he says. "It feels very much like a conflict between two people that moves from rational discussion to heated blows. Finally it is resolved, and the angry party stomps off through the end of the piece."
Although Bottorff didn’t come to Purdue to major in music - there are no degrees in that subject offered at the University - music has filled most of his minutes outside the classroom.
He’s marched in the drumline of the Purdue "All-American" Marching Band, and is a veteran member of the Purdue Symphonic Band. Each spring he’s also participated in Purdue’s percussion concert, always seeking out opportunities to participate in unconventional pieces as well as traditional percussion works. In the spring of 2000, he made music with push brooms in "Brooms Hilda," and this spring used balloons as instruments in "Balloonology."
As part of his student teaching at Tri-County High School in Wolcott, he directed the school’s percussion ensembles. Looking towards his career in education, he knows he wants to make use of his talents in music as well as his English education degree.
"I plan on working with high school percussion groups as much as possible, especially marching drumlines. I enjoy arranging percussion music for marching bands and ensembles," he says. "Somewhere in the corner of my mind, I may return to pursue a degree in music with an interest in becoming a professional musician. We’ll have to wait and see."
Staying active in music at Purdue was an easy choice for the Richmond High School graduate.
"I couldn’t live without it," he says.
"It’s a real joy in my life to be a part of music and to let music be a part of me. Music helps fine tune my understanding of emotions and allows me to harness them into fuel for life. Music revitalizes and energizes me on a daily basis. I would survive without it, but I would be much less successful.