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Category Archives: Best of All Possible Concerts

Another semester is on the books.  Spring 2011 was a great one!

Our final concert of the year was The Best Of All Possible Concerts, and it happened on Saturday, April 23 at 2pm.  We played the following:

Overture to Candide by Leonard Bernstein (senior choice for Carmen Sheils)

Down a Country Lane by Aaron Copland, featuring guest conductor Jonathan Jager (also his senior choice)

The Hounds of Spring by Alfred Reed (senior choice for Aaron Liskov)

English Folk Song Suite by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Amazing Grace by Frank Ticheli, featuring guest conductor Tim Beadle

Finale from Symphony no. 5 by Dmitri Shostakovich (senior choice for Laura Trujillo)

We also had the 3rd annual Columbia Festival of Winds, and what a great success it was!  Here’s a look at what we played:

The Festival began with Dr. William Berz of Rutgers University conducting Fanfare and Allegro by Clifton Williams.

The Columbia University Wind Ensemble played the following:

The Cowboys – John Williams, arr. Jim Curnow (for hornist and CFW guru Sarah Sechan)

Yosemite Autumn – Mark Camphouse (for hornist and people-organizing wizard Andy Knowlton)

Guest conductor Ron Nahass led the CUWE in Moorside March by Gustav Holst.

Pagan Dances – James Barnes (for flautist Laura Hopwood)

And for the grand finale, Washington Post March by John Philip Sousa was performed with 200 or so musicians in a massed band!

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Dmitri Shostokovich (1906-1975) was one of the great composers of the 20th century, and certainly the greatest to emerge from the Soviet Union.  His relationship with the Soviet government, especially Soviet premier Joseph Stalin, defined nearly every aspect of his life.  He was born in St. Petersburg and grew up in the last years of tsarist rule in Russia.  The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 came when Shostakovich was 11, but its influence stayed with him the rest of his life.  His rise to fame came at the hands of an aid to Leon Trotsky, a father of the revolution.  Shortly thereafter, Trotsky’s exile and the death of Vladimir Lenin left  Stalin in charge, and he ruled with an iron fist and no patience for dissent or criticism of any kind.  The arts were to reflect the official reality of Soviet existence, and thus “Formalist” works (that is, any work that displayed hints of modernism or abstract content) were at least frowned upon, if not banned outright.  Shostakovich made something of a game of pushing as far towards this line as possible, sometimes even drifting past it.  He was officially denounced by the regime twice, only to later rehabilitate his reputation through new, more apparently pro-Soviet works.  At times the regime used him as a mouthpiece, and he seemed only too willing to comply.  Yet his works often show signs of weariness or outright contempt for his government.  His controversial memoir, Testimony, seems to confirm the notion that Shostakovich did not wish to support the Soviet regime.  However, the memoir’s emergence 4 years after his death and the murky circumstances of its creation, not to mention its appearance at the height of the Cold War, all call into question its truthfulness.  Still, Shostakovich undeniably made beautiful music, including 15 symphonies, an equal number of string quartets, large quantities of film music, and 2 operas which he held dear for his entire life.

Shostakovich wrote the Symphony no. 5 in 1937.  He was under tremendous, even life-threatening pressure to do so after his previous major work, 1936’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtensk, was decried as Formalist by Soviet authorities.  The Symphony was his attempt to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the authorities while still speaking to the broader public.  He succeeded mightily in both tasks.  Government officials read the Symphony as the story of a Soviet man struggling within himself, only to see the light and become one with the Party in the end.  Friends of Shostakovich and Western listeners, on the other hand, could hear Shostakovich pulling against the shackles of totalitarianism, especially in the final measures of the finale, with its seemingly false, stale optimism.  The truth is nearly impossible to know, but it seems very likely that he intended to express some degree of discontent.

Interpretations of the tempos Symphony no. 5 vary widely, especially regarding those final measures of the finale.  I present the finale as conducted by Mravinsky, who conducted the premieres of several Shostakovich symphonies, including the 5th.  Given that, and that he conducted this at the Leningrad Conservatory when it was still called that, I can only think of his interpretation as sound and reflective of the time it was composed.

Now that that’s over with, here’s Leonard Bernstein doing the same movement with the New York Philharmonic.  It’s a better performance on every level, although I would quibble the slightest bit with Bernstein’s final tempo – he goes too fast!  But it’s very much worth a watch!

Now here’s the band version, played very cleanly by a Scottish military band (in 2 parts):

Symphony no. 5 on Wikipedia – very informative.

The San Francisco Symphony deconstructs several key moments in the Symphony.

Shostakovich bio on Wikipedia.

The debate about Shostakovich and his allegiances rages on…

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was an influential British composer and folk-song collector.  His powerful and expressive orchestral music is notable for its very “English” sound.  His early adventures collecting folk songs in the English countryside profoundly influenced his later compositions.  Along with Gustav Holst, his works for wind band form a foundation for the serious literature in that medium.

The English Folk Song Suite is one of those foundational works. It was written in 1923 and premiered at Kneller Hall, home of Britain’s finest military music academy.  It uses as its source material several English folks songs.  It is cast in 3 movements: a “March” subtitled “Seventeen Come Sunday”; an “Intermezzo” on “My Bonny Boy”; and another “March” subtitled “Folk Songs from Somerset”, which incorporates several different tunes.  A good summary of the movements and the folk songs involved in each is available at Wikipedia.  The original composition also included a fourth movement, Sea Songs, which Vaughan Williams later decided to publish separately.  While the English Folk Song Suite is a cornerstone of the wind band repertoire, it is not fully demonstrative of Vaughan Williams’s compositional powers.  Only the “Intermezzo” approaches the harmonic daring and lyricism that mark the rest of his work.  The remainder of the piece is a fairly straightforward, faithful setting of the folk songs.

Program notes on the Suite.

For curiosity’s sake, here’s a Facebook discussion board dedicated to the Suite.

A chapter on British wind band music from an online History of the Wind Band by Dr. Stephen L. Rhodes. Vaughan Williams and the English Folk Song Suite feature prominently.

So now let’s listen to the Eastman Wind Orchestra (one of the best in the world) play these movements:

The Ralph Vaughan Williams Society – the source for anything you might ever possibly want to know about the composer.

Vaughan Williams on Wikipedia.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is one of the titans of American art music.  A native New Yorker, he went to France at age 21 and became the first American to study with the legendary Nadia Boulanger.  His Organ Symphony, written for Boulanger, provided his breakthrough into composition stardom.  After experimenting with many different styles, he became best known for his idiomatic treatment of Americana, leaving behind such chestnuts as The Tender Land (1954), Billy The Kid (1938), and Appalachian Spring (1944).  This last piece won Copland the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1945.  He was also an acclaimed conductor and writer.

Down a Country Lane was originally a piano piece.  Copland wrote it in 1962 on a commission from Life magazine, which published it in hopes of providing quality music to the common piano student.  It has been transcribed for both orchestra and band.

It turns out I’m not the first to put together a resource site for this piece.  Check out this existing information site – it looks very old by internet standards!  But very useful all the same.

More about the piece at the Classical Archives.

Down a Country Lane page at the Wind Repertory Project.

Here is a band performance of Down a Country Lane:

And the original piano version (quite a bit faster than it ought to be!):

Copland has a huge presence on the internet, thus this site will feature only the main portals into his work.  Please click far beyond the sites listed here for a complete idea of Copland’s footprint on the web.

Fanfare for Aaron Copland – a blog with information on the composer, extraordinarily useful links, and some downloadable versions of old LP recordings.  This is the place to explore the several links beyond the main site.

Aaron Copland Wikipedia Biography.

Quotes from Aaron Copland on Wikiquote.

New York Times archive of Copland-related material. Includes reviews of his music and books as well as several fascinating articles that he wrote.

Down a Country Lane is a 2011 Senior Choice for multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Jager, who will conduct the piece in our April concert.

Alfred Reed (1921-2005) was born in New York City.  He studied composition at the Juilliard School with Vittorio Giannini after a tour in the US Air Force during World War II.  He was later a staff arranger for NBC in the 1950s and a professor of music at Miami University from 1966 to 1993.  He is remembered today as a distinguished educator, conductor, and composer.  His impact was the greatest in the wind band world, where he left behind more than 100 frequently performed works.  He was particularly popular in Japan, where he developed a close relationship with the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra, and where many of his works are required literature for all bands.

Alfred Reed biography at C. L. Barnhouse music publishing.

The Hounds of Spring was inspired by the poem Atlanta in Calydon by Algernon Charles Swinburne.  Reed quotes it and describes the inspiration it gave him in his own program notes on the piece:

When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces,
The mother of months in meadow or plain
Fills the shadows and windy places
With lisp of leaves and ripple of rain

And soft as lips that laugh and hide
The laughing leaves of the trees divide,
And screen from seeing and leave in sight
The god pursuing, the maiden hid.

Algernon Charles Swinburne
Atlanta in Calydon

Program Notes

When the hounds of spring are on winter’s traces,” a magical picture of young love in springtime, forms the basis for the present purely musical setting, in traditional three-part overture form, of this lovely paean… an attempt to capture the twin elements of the poem, exuberant youthful gaiety and the sweetness of tender love, in an appropriate musical texture.
The poem, a recreation in modern English of an ancient Greek tragedy, appeared in print in 1865, when the poet was 28 years old.  It made Algernon Swinburne literally an overnight success.
The Hounds of Spring was commissioned by, and is dedicated to, the John L. Forster Secondary School Symphonic Band of Windsor, Ontario, and its director, Gerald A.N. Brown.  The first performance took place in Windsor on May 8th, 1980, by the aforementioned group, under the direction of the composer.

The full text of Atlanta in Calydon.

An anonymous band plays The Hounds of Spring on Youtube:

This piece is a senior selection for trumpeter and scholar Aaron Liskov.

Educated at the University of Michigan, composer Frank Ticheli (b. 1958) has become one of the biggest names in new wind band repertoire.  Since 1991 he has been a Professor of Composition USC-Thornton and, until 1998, Composer in Residence of the Pacific Symphony.  The recipient of many awards, he was most recently winner of the 2006 NBA/William D. Revelli Memorial Band Composition Contest for his Symphony No. 2.

Ticheli’s own program note best encapsulates the impetus for his version of Amazing Grace:

I wanted my setting of AMAZING GRACE to reflect the powerful simplicity of the words and melody – to be sincere, to be direct, to be honest – and not through the use of novel harmonies and clever tricks, but by traveling traditional paths in search of truth and authenticity.

I believe that music has the power to take us to a place that words alone cannot. And so my own feelings about “Amazing Grace” reside in this setting itself. The harmony, texture, orchestration, and form are inseparable, intertwined so as to be perceived as a single expressive entity.

The spiritual, “Amazing Grace,” was written by John Newton (1725-1807), a slaveship captain who, after years of transporting slaves across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World, suddenly saw through divine grace the evilness of his acts. First published in 1835 by William Walker in The Southern Harmony, “Amazing Grace” has since grown to become one of the most beloved of all American spirituals.

The Manhattan Beach Music recording of AMAZING GRACE is performed by the California State University at Fullerton Wind Ensemble, Mitchell Fennell, conductor, Frank Ticheli, guest conductor. AMAZING GRACE was commissioned by John Whitwell in loving memory of his father, John Harvey Whitwell. It was first performed on February 10, 1994 by the Michigan State University Wind Symphony, John Whitwell conductor.

Frank Ticheli
Pasadena, California
May 11, 1994

More info on Ticheli’s version of Amazing Grace can be found here, at his publisher’s website.  This site is also home to a complete, downloadable set of mp3s of the vast majority of his large ensemble music – quite a find!

Frank Ticheli’s personal website, Frankticheli.com.

Ticheli bio on wikipedia.

Frank Ticheli’s Facebook fanclub.

A video interview with Ticheli in which he talks about composing.

An anonymous band plays Amazing Grace:

There is also a version of Amazing Grace arranged by William Himes:

Info about the original song Amazing Grace on wikipedia.

Finally, the lyrics to the original tune of Amazing Grace, by John Newton (1725-1807).

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And Grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that Grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

The Lord has promised good to me.
His word my hope secures.
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) was an erudite, passionate musician whose exceptional talents and expressive gifts earned him a special place in the hearts of New Yorkers.  He rose to instant national fame in 1943, at age 25, when he filled in for the suddenly ill Bruno Walter as conductor of a nationally televised New York Philharmonic performance.  He went on to become the Philharmonic’s music director until 1969, and remained a frequent guest conductor there until his death.  With the Philharmonic, he presented a series of 53 educational Young People’s Concerts which were broadcast on CBS, making him a familiar face around the nation.  He also composed music, crossing from academic classical music into Broadway musicals, including West Side StoryOn the Town, and Candide.

Bernstein’s operetta Candide (1956) is based on the French philosopher Voltaire’s satirical 1759 novella of the same name.  Candide is an innocent young man who lives in a sheltered paradise.  He is mentored by Dr. Pangloss, who believes that they live in “the best of all possible worlds.”  This optimistic principal is tested to the breaking point as Candide is cast out of his reverie into one abhorrent trial after another.  By the story’s end, he has seen everything he ever loved wither away amidst death, destruction, and deceit on a massive scale all over the world.  He finally amends his life’s philosophy to the more pragmatic “let us cultivate our garden.”  The story amounts to a thorough skewering of the then-fashionable optimistic philosophy, with a few jokes at the expense of government, religion, and society thrown in for good measure.  Voltaire’s original version is one of the most widely-taught pieces of literature in the Western canon.  Bernstein’s operetta, though not a success in its first incarnation, is a staple in the repertoire of opera companies around the world.

The Overture to Candide is the most famous excerpt of the operetta.  It is played hundreds of times all over the world every year.  It is considered to be sort of the theme song of Bernstein’s beloved New York Philharmonic, who have played it without a conductor ever since his death.  2 band transcriptions exist, one by Walter Beeler, the other by Clare Grundman (we’re playing the Beeler).

Video 1: Band version (the ending gets away from them a bit).

Video 2: Bernstein himself conducts it!

The Candide Suite was arranged by Clare Grundman.  Its five movements each are based on one number from the operetta: “The Best of all Possible Worlds”, “Westphalia Chorale and Battle Music”, “Auto-da-fe”, “Glitter and Be Gay”, and “Make Our Garden Grow”.

Columbia Summer Winds only did the final movement of the suite, “Make Our Garden Grow”.  So here is the band version as realized by Grundman, a good performance but perhaps a bit quick for my taste:

Now a concert performance of the actual opera version, with Bernstein himself conducting.  The sound is a bit out of sync with the video, and the volume level is quite low, but crank it up (no really, CRANK IT UP!!) and it’s absolutely worth it, a truly, deeply moving experience:

Now some links:

Leonardbernstein.com – a true treasure trove of everything Bernstein, including many personal reflections by friends, relatives, and colleagues.

Leonard Bernstein on Wikipedia.

The Leonard Bernstein Collection at the US Library of Congress.

A lengthy and heartfelt essay on Bernstein and his influence at classicalnotes.net.

Voltaire’s Candide on wikipedia – highly recommended reading!

Full text of Voltaire’s Candide at literature.org – also recommended reading!

Sparknotes version of Candiderecommended for both its summary and its rather in-depth analysis.  I think it’s longer than the book itself!

Candide the operetta on wikipedia.

Candide the drinking game – bonus for those of you who got down this far.

Overture to Candide is a 2011 senior choice for hornist and CUWE Vice-President Carmen Sheills.