By Dr. Jeff Calissi
The Marimba Masters performed their first concert on March 11. 1954 at 12:10 p.m. in Kilbourn Hall on the campus of the Eastman School of Music. In addition to friends and faculty attending the concert, David Harvard, founder of the Rochester Commerce Club, was in the audience. Impressed with the group, he asked the ensemble to perform for the next Rochester Commerce Club meeting, which would include executives from area companies such as Kodak, Xerox, and Gerber. This first off-campus performance, which paid the ensemble thirty-five dollars and lunch, served as a catalyst for additional concerts and a confirmation that the chamber music experience for marimba was not only a campus "laboratory ensemble" but a legitimate way to garner interest and money outside of the academic setting.
In the Spring Semester (1955), the ensemble performed on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, a nationally broadcasted television show from Columbia Broadcasting Studios in New York City. The format of the program was a competition in which Godfrey decided a winning group or ensemble at the conclusion of the show. The evening The Marimba Masters performed, Godfrey declared all the groups as winners and invited them to play on his morning radio/TV broadcasts from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. for the remainder of the week in addition to playing on his Wednesday evening television broadcast, Arthur Godfrey and His Friends. Upon the conclusion of the first week of performances, Godfrey invited The Marimba Masters to continue as guests for the following week. At the conclusion of the second week, Godfrey expressed further interest and extended an invitation for the group to play in Las Vegas, Nevada. Instead, the group unanimously voted in favor of going back to Eastman to finish their academic studies. In total The Marimba Masters performed for eleven radio and television broadcasts in June 1955 for the payment of hotel, food, and 600 dollars for each player.
From 1955 through 1959, the ensemble performed in a variety of venues including the Buffalo and Rochester Philharmonic Orchestras. Although many concerts were on a local level in Rochester, the Arthur Godfrey shows were not the last time the ensemble would perform on television. In November 1957, The Marimba Masters performed for a fund-raising show hosted by The Women's Committee of the Rochester Civic Music Association emceed by television's Ed Sullivan. Several acts performed, including a then relatively unknown comedienne named Carol Burnett who sang "I Made a Fool of Myself Over John Foster Dulles." Sullivan was impressed with The Marimba Masters and invited the group to perform on his nationally televised program, The Ed Sullivan Show, on January 12, 1958.
In spring 1959, after nearly fifty performances in five years, the ensemble that was comprised of several advanced percussionists at the Eastman School of Music ended when Peters graduated and accepted an invitation from Dr. Fritz Reiner to become the Principal Percussionist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The residual players began a new chapter under the name The Marimba Aires and had additional years of experience.
Today, Peters views the marimba ensemble as a great necessity to the training of percussionists, akin to string quartets, woodwind quintets, and brass ensembles. Peters summarizes the impact of The Marimba Masters as being aurally and visually gratifying to the audience and of enormous value to percussionists as a vehicle for teaching musicality, style, and interpretation.