Arts News: Sandbox Percussion Group at UMKC is Grammy Nominee

Sandbox Percussion: (left to right) Victor Caccese, Jonny Allen, Terry Sweeny, Ian Rosenbaum (photo by Noah Stern Weber)

The quartet Sandbox Percussion, currently serving as percussion faculty and ensemble-in-residence at the UMKC Conservatory, are nominated for a Grammy Award for their album, “Seven Pillars,” with composer Andy Akiho.

Sandbox, Yale-trained and based in Brooklyn, teach, perform and demonstrate an entrepreneurial example for students who want to forge their own artistic paths.

The group includes founders Ian Rosenbaum and Victor Caccese, with Jonny Allen and Terry Sweeny.

Sandbox started, in a way, on a whim. “We were living in three different cities at the time,” said Rosenbaum. “We thought it would be fun to hang out for long weekends, and to play some repertoire we hadn’t played together before, just enjoy hanging out together in a non-stressful way.”

“Little by little Sandbox just became a bigger part of our lives,” he said. “I think the reason that our group is still around is because even back then and still today our interests are completely aligned.” The group celebrated its 10th anniversary in September.

“It took us a while to get anywhere in terms of income,” said Rosenbaum, “but the trade-off that we were all willing to make and are still willing to make is the complete artistic control over everything that we do.”

Why the name Sandbox? “We were searching for something that would reflect the spirit with which our group was started — the joy of playing music together. The image of children playing in a sandbox felt right to us. They are lost in imagination, in wonder, and are building whole new worlds. But — they are also taking what they are doing really seriously.”

For both the percussion quartet and the conservatory, it’s a somewhat unorthodox arrangement. “This only had a prayer of working, only had a chance of working, because of this shared philosophy, shared background, the history the four of us have together,” said Rosenbaum.

“Not only did we study with the same teacher (at Yale), so we have the same foundation, but to be a successful chamber ensemble you have to be on the same page artistically. We have the same goals, we are coming at it from the same perspective, and that allows us to build a framework for each of the students.

But Sandbox isn’t just teaching flams and pataflaflas. They hope to instill entrepreneurial values and a sense of resilience in their students as well.

“We believe strongly that any student today who is interested in creating something . . . it’s possible. The opportunities are there, the funding is there, if you are willing to give enough of yourself over a long enough period of time,” said Rosenbaum.

“Yes, we are teaching percussion, we are teaching people how to play . . . but we also wanted to have the opportunity to share our story with a diverse group of people . . . to give our example of how we did this, and to inspire people, hopefully, to figure out what their dreams are and give them the tools to make them happen.”

Their latest project demonstrates that philosophy. For years, they worked with composer Andy Akiho on a concert-length work, “Seven PIllars.” The premiere was scheduled for April 2020, which — of course — was cancelled.

“It was clear that we were not going to be able to perform (the premiere) in the context that we wanted to . . . so we kind of reversed course,” said Rosenbaum. “We made an album, made it almost entirely on our own . . . we went into the middle of the woods with a recording engineer and some equipment and spent weeks and weeks together making this album.”

Their change of focus paid off with Grammy Award nominations for both Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance and, for Akiho, Best Contemporary Classical Composition. The 64th annual awards ceremony will be held Jan. 31.

They also commissioned filmmakers to create videos for each movement, which premiered online last October and are available to view on the group’s YouTube page, along with a virtual treasure trove of material on their website, including their “Quarantine Portfolio” from 2020.

In-person and in Kansas City, they will perform Steve Reich’s “Drumming” with the UMKC percussion studio on January 19 at UMKC’s White Hall. Then on May 6, they are the featured soloists with the UMKC Conservatory Orchestra concert in Helzberg Hall, directed by Kevin Noe, performing Viet Cuong’s “Re(new)al.”

So far, it seems, this experiment in Kansas City is going well.

“At our first UMKC faculty recital concert, there were a ton of people there, and it was really heartwarming to us to feel that support from a place that up until September, I’m sure, had never heard of us,” said Rosenbaum. “The welcoming nature of the community, the friendliness, the supportiveness of both the student body and the faculty have been way beyond what we expected.”

To see performance videos and learn about upcoming performances, visit sandboxpercussion.com.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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