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John Mackey (b. 1973) once famously compared the band and the orchestra to the kind of girl a composer might meet at a party. The orchestra seems like she ought to be your ideal woman, but she clearly feels superior to you and talks a lot about her exes (like Dvorak and Beethoven). The band, meanwhile, is loud and brash, but loves everything you do and can’t wait to play your stuff, the newer, the better! (I’ve rather poorly paraphrased Mackey – it’s best understood in his original blog post on the subject).

With this attitude and his prodigious talent, John Mackey has become a superstar composer among band directors. He has even eclipsed his former teacher, John Corigliano, by putting out more than a dozen new band works, including a symphony, since 2005. All are challenging, and all are innovative. Mackey’s works for wind ensemble and orchestra have been performed around the world, and have won numerous composition prizes. His Redline Tango, originally for orchestra and then transcribed by the composer for band, won him the American Bandmasters Assocation/Ostwald Award in 2005, making him, then 32, the youngest composer ever to recieve that prize.  He won again in 2009 with Aurora Awakes.  His compositional style is fresh and original. I once heard him state that he counted the band Tool among his musical influences.

John Mackey publishes his own music through Osti Music.  The website for this company doubles as his personal website and his blog, which is very informative for anyone looking for a composer’s perspective on new music (and pictures of food). He is featured on wikipedia and the Wind Repertory Project.  He is also on Twitter 20 or so times a day.  And he has a Facebook composer page.

Sheltering Sky came into being in 2012, and was premiered on April 21 of that year.  It was a commission from two junior high school bands: Traughber (Rachel Maxwell, director) and Thompson (Daniel Harrison, director), both in Oswego, Illinois.  Mackey thus wrote the piece for players of junior high school ability, ending up somewhere around grade 3.  Somehow, it retains the usual Mackey-isms (functional harmony colored by diatonic clusters, unforced expressive lyricism, occasional unprepared sharp dissonances, harmonies that bloom from a single pitch) without asking too much from individual players.  Jake Wallace provides the usual excellent program note, featured both in the score and on Mackey’s website (links added by me):

The wind band medium has, in the twenty-first century, a host of disparate styles that dominate its texture. At the core of its contemporary development exist a group of composers who dazzle with scintillating and frightening virtuosity. As such, at first listening one might experience John Mackey’s Sheltering Sky as a striking departure. Its serene and simple presentation is a throwback of sorts – a nostalgic portrait of time suspended.

The work itself has a folksong-like quality – intended by the composer – and through this an immediate sense of familiarity emerges. Certainly the repertoire has a long and proud tradition of weaving folk songs into its identity, from the days of Holst and Vaughan Williams to modern treatments by such figures as Donald Grantham and Frank Ticheli. Whereas these composers incorporated extant melodies into their works, however, Mackey takes a play from Percy Grainger. Grainger’s Colonial Song seemingly sets a beautiful folksong melody in an enchanting way (so enchanting, in fact, that he reworked the tune into two other pieces: Australian Up-Country Tune and The Gum-Suckers March). In reality, however, Grainger’s melody was entirely original – his own concoction to express how he felt about his native Australia. Likewise, although the melodies of Sheltering Sky have a recognizable quality (hints of the contours and colors of Danny Boy and Shenandoah are perceptible), the tunes themselves are original to the work, imparting a sense of hazy distance as though they were from a half-remembered dream.

The work unfolds in a sweeping arch structure, with cascading phrases that elide effortlessly. The introduction presents softly articulated harmonies stacking through a surrounding placidity. From there emerge statements of each of the two folksong-like melodies – the call as a sighing descent in solo oboe, and its answer as a hopeful rising line in trumpet. Though the composer’s trademark virtuosity is absent, his harmonic language remains. Mackey avoids traditional triadic sonorities almost exclusively, instead choosing more indistinct chords with diatonic extensions (particularly seventh and ninth chords) that facilitate the hazy sonic world that the piece inhabits. Near cadences, chromatic dissonances fill the narrow spaces in these harmonies, creating an even greater pull toward wistful nostalgia. Each new phrase begins over the resolution of the previous one, creating a sense of motion that never completely stops. The melodies themselves unfold and eventually dissipate until at last the serene introductory material returns – the opening chords finally coming to rest.

The official recording, played by the Texas State University Wind Symphony conducted by Caroline Beatty:

You can read more about Sheltering Sky on Mackey’s website and this question and answer session with the composer.  I also highly recommend reading the glowing comments about the piece on its Soundcloud page.

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I learned this summer that summer itself is a somewhat squishy and pliable idea that means different things to different people.  As I write this recap on August 9, the eve of my first day teaching at a new school after more than three months at home, I have friends and colleagues who have been announcing on Facebook that their summer is just beginning!

This summer was the quietist I have had in many years, with no conducting obligations at all due to the arrival of our first child.  Days after that, I finished my work at Arizona State University, where I had a wonderful experience and came out with a DMA degree!  Among my greatest accomplishments is my thesis, “An Annotated Bibliography of Symphonies for Wind Band” (pdf).  A searchable web version of that is currently in the works, coming soon!

I remain on the board of the world’s best outdoor summer band, Columbia Summer Winds.  The conductors (William Tonissen, Sarah Quiroz, and Greg Whitmore) had a wonderful program lined up for their concerts in New York City this summer.  Remarkably, they had no weather cancellations at all!  See their full schedule here.

Ecstatic Fanfare – Steven Bryant

Molly on the Shore – Percy Grainger

If You Could Only See The Frog – Paul Richards

Second Suite in F – Gustav Holst

Selections from Into the Woods – Stephen Sondheim/arr. Bulla

The Hounds of Spring – Alfred Reed

The Stars and Stripes – John Philip Sousa

I also spent some time at the World Association of Symphonic Bands and Ensembles (WASBE) Conference in San Jose, California in July.  This resulted in a digest of each day of the conference (even after I left, thank you conference program and the Internet).

Day 1 – San Francisco Wind Ensemble and University of Maryland Wind Orchestra

Day 2 – James Logan High School Band (reading session), University of Houston Symphonic Band, Brooklyn Wind Symphony

Day 3 – Ohlone Wind Orchestra (reading session), Israel National Youth Wind Orchestra, Landesblasorchester Baden-Württemberg

Day 4 – Pacific Symphonic Wind Ensemble (reading session), Temple University Chamber Winds, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Wind Ensemble, University of Louisville Wind Ensemble

Day 5 – University of Saskatchewan Wind Orchestra (reading session), Pacific Symphonic Wind Ensemble, New Edmonton Wind Sinfonia, Lone Star Wind Orchestra

Day 6 – New Edmonton Wind Sinfonia (reading session), University of Saskatchewan Wind Orchestra, San Jose Wind Symphony, Dallas Winds

Day 7 – Amador Valley High School Band (reading session), Showa Wind Symphony, WASBE Youth Wind Orchestra

This was a wonderful conference that I highly recommend everyone attend in the future.  Next one: Utrecht 2017.

Finally, I got into the music review business with a review of Twisted Skyscape, a new album of music for woodwind orchestra.

It’s the last day! Since I’m not at the conference, I can only imagine how it went, but the repertoire certainly looks exciting! We begin with the final reading session, this time featuring the Amador Valley High School band conducted by Jonathan Grantham. They played:

Fanfarria by Javier Perez Garrido

On This Bright Morning by David Maslanka

Persian Dances 2 & 3 by Amir Molookpour

Champ de Mars Par Jour de Lumere by Eric Champagne

Arcana by Kevin Houben

Fanfarria might as well be called “Fanfare for the Common Sophomore.” The first half sounds like a watered down version of Copland’s more famous fanfare, complete with unison brass phrases punctuated by bass drum and gong hits. The second half adds the whole band, but retains a bit of Copland’s flavor. If you’ve always wanted to play Fanfare for the Common Man but either don’t have the trumpets or can’t stand to leave out your woodwinds, this might be for you. The Maslanka begins and ends with a repeated piano arpeggio that sounds equal parts Beethoven and Philip Glass, most often paired with simple melodic accompaniment. I know that David Maslanka is a serious, thinking composer, but this trend in his music (see below) is not his best. This piece shines the brightest (no pun intended) in its center section. The 2 Persian Dances ought to be on every list of quality grade 3 literature. #2 started a bit slowly for my taste, so I preferred #3. Both have a lot to offer students. I could not find a recording for the Champagne, but it appears to have won at least one prize recently. The Houben’s opening sounds like every grade 1 minor key band piece: simple, modal, and unsophisticated. Unfortunately, it is a grade 4, and the rest of the piece does not do anything to dispel those first impressions. So end the reading sessions. There were plenty of interesting pieces among these. Make sure to sign up for the Midwest Music newsletter so you can hear them all again.

The final day of concerts began with the Showa Wind Symphony. I am VERY sad to miss this one. Every time I have seen a band from Japan, I have been absolutely blown away. This began with this video, showing “Japan’s Best Elementary School Band” playing Bernstein’s Slava!, a grade 6 piece, from memory. I thought this must just be smoke and mirrors, but at Midwest 2013, I saw the Kagoshima Joho High School Wind Ensemble. Every note was polished and musical (except for an inexplicably incoherent rendition of the final movement of Symphonie Fantastique), and they had a dynamic range that I have never heard again in any band ever. At Midwest 2014, I attended a clinic with the Saitama Sakae Wind Orchestra, in which the players were disciplined and had an extremely mature sound, despite having only played for one year in many cases. (Takeaway quote from the Japanese clinician: “In Japan, you choose one club, and you do it well. Is it different in America?” followed by uncomfortable laughter from the mostly American audience.) I have still never seen a Japanese adult band, but if their children are any indication, the Showa Wind Symphony, directed by Shintaro Fukumoto, ought to be absolutely impossibly good. Sadly, I know almost none of their music:

Downey Overture by Oscar Navarro

Toccata and Fugue in D minor by J. S. Bach (arr. Yo Goto)

Kokyou by Masamicz Amano

Cane River Murals by Martin Ellerby (guest conducted by Eugene Migliaro Corporon)

(intermission)

“The Earth” from The Planets by Trouvere by Jun Nagao

Afferoce by Chang Su Koh

A Wild Rose Above by Yo Goto

Mont Fuji – la musique inspire de l’estampe de Hokusai by Toshio Mashima

The Navarro I had heard previously on recordings, and another listen tells me that it is an impressive and unique concert opener. I could not find specifically the Yo Goto arrangement of the Bach, but I have heard it in other versions, and it is a wonderful technical and musical showpiece for band. Nor could I find a recording of the Amano, but a look at the perusal score shows a lot of black notes, and thus (probably) technical difficulty. The Ellerby grabs the attention immediately with clear phrasing and soulful melodies in the first movement. The second movement is joyous romp of a swing scherzo. The later movements similarly use jazzy styles, often a little bit on the nose for my taste (I am always wary of any wind band piece that has a drum set part), but mostly to good effect.

I was only able to find the Nagao in saxophone orchestra version, and that has some interesting sounds in it. I would love to hear what I hope would be the more colorful wind band version. I could not find the Koh at all. The Goto sparkles at times and goes into full on aggressive band dissonance mode at others. It ends atmospherically. I also struck out looking for anything on the Mashima, but I trust it was a stellar concert closer.

Finally, the WASBE concerts officially end with the WASBE Youth Wind Orchestra led by José Rafael Pascual-Vilaplana, and featuring players from several countries around the world. Their program has a decidedly Latin tilt to it, with some American influence thrown in as well.

Pulsar Mimesis by José M. Fayos-Jordán

Rapsodia Hernandiana by Santiago Quinto Serna

Utopias from 200. Tercera Suite Para Band by Victoriano Valencia Rincón

Requiem by David Maslanka

Symphony no. 2 “La Commedia” by Brett Abigaña (world premiere, commissioned by World Projects for 2015 WASBE San Jose)

The one piece that I do know on this program is the Maslanka Requiem. In one of my last acts as music director at the Columbia University Wind Ensemble, I signed us up to be on the consortium for this piece. When I eventually saw the score, it was not my favorite: like On This Bright Morning above, I thought it relied too heavily on piano figuration paired with single melodies in its outer sections, which make up most of the piece. Clearly I am in the minority feeling this way, because I have heard of at least a dozen performances of this piece. That said, I do like a lot of Dr. Maslanka’s music, and I am overdue to feature one of them in this space. I am thinking Give Us This Day or Morning Star or Mother Earth might get my attention very soon.

Regarding the rest of the program, I could find no sign of the Fayos-Jordan. The Quinto Serna starts off rather loud and active. A highlight comes towards the middle with some great and delicate (but at times still very loud) lyrical music, which continues in some fashion to the end. The Valencia Rincón starts out as genuine party music, complete with grooving percussion. It becomes more gentle and lyrical in the following section, before taking a stately turn. Finally, the party atmosphere returns. The big piece of the night is of course the Abigaña which, being a world premiere, you had to be there to hear. I very much look forward to hearing it!

So, with WASBE 2015 now officially over, I find myself reflecting on the positives and negatives. Really and truly, my positives list is enormous, and my negative only consists of one big thing. That one thing is the cost of registration. At $350 for the week, this is far more expensive than a great many larger conferences. The Midwest Clinic in 2015, for instance, is $150 for four days, with a cheaper early-bird rate available. This high price of admission I’m sure deterred many locals (especially non-members, who had to pay an even higher price) from coming, let alone those who already had to pay for air travel and lodging. That said, it ended up being worth the price of admission for me. San Jose is a beautiful city and a perfect (yes, PERFECT) place to host a conference of this size. The venues and hotel were close together and were surrounded by great food options. The hotel discounts appear to have been deep indeed! The California Theater was a wonderful venue for bands that we managed to fill on several occasions. The bands were well chosen and represented different types of ensembles and approaches to our art from around the world. The repertoire sessions allowed for more featured performers (as well as double duty from all of the Canadian bands) and showcased a variety of repertoire, again from around the world. I think every band director, player, composer, publisher, and wind band aficionado owes it to him or herself to get to a WASBE conference. It was good times with great music and great people in a phenomenal location. So, WASBE, keep doing what you did so well at this conference. I’ll see you in Utrecht in 2017.

Three concerts and a rep session today! First, thanks again to Anthony Reimer for providing some extra notes from the ground in the comments over the past couple of days. For our reading session, we were back with the New Edmonton Wind Sinfonia who, like both of its Canadian cousins, did double duty as a concert group and a reading band, always with completely different repertoire. They played:

Hue and Cry by Steven Stucky

Music with Chequered Ears by Arpad Balazs

Krakatoa by Kah Chun Wong

Love Transforming by Adam Gorb

Bohemian Revelry by Adam Gorb

The Stucky on first listen seems to be a sectional work that focuses on one idea at a time, subjecting each one to different timbral and textural treatments, often with a fluttery figure in the background. It is written for orchestra winds, brass, and percussion, so would work well as a semi-chamber work in a larger band program. Hal Leonard has a score and parts but no recording for the Balazs. I look forward to hearing that one someday. The Wong begins by setting the stage for some epic brass and broadening into more soaring melodies. From there, it is a sectional tone poem. While its various sections are fun, interesting, and sound relatively sophisticated (my favorite things), the piece flirts with cliché (my least favorite thing). The first Gorb (Love Transforming) starts off aggressively angry and disconsolate – it stays that way long enough for it to be uncomfortable. Around the 7 minute mark, something like a traditional overture sound comes in, beginning the transformation. This is a VERY long time to have to endure aggressive dissonance, and this piece may not be worth the payoff. Gorb #2 (Bohemian Revelry) begs me to ask the question “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” Once I get past the title, the piece is a relatively straightforward collection of Bohemian dances that sounds like a good time.

The concerts began with the University of Saskatchewan Wind Orchestra under Darrin Oehlerking. I had the pleasure of meeting Oehlerking the other night, at which point he told me that this was an all Canadian immigrant program, as follows:

100 Years of Fanfares by Elizabeth Raum

Kalla by Allan Gilliland (trumpet soloist Dean McNeill)

Stratford Suite (mvt. III) by Howard Cable

Concert Overture in F minor by Charles O’Neill (ed. Darrin Oehlerking)

Invisible Cities by Dinuk Wijeratne (featuring the TorQ Percussion Quartet)

The Ride of the North West Mounted Police by Annie Glen Broder (arr. John Waldron, ed. Darrin Oehlerking)

Unfortunately, this was one of those “had to be there” concerts, since half of these pieces (Raum, O’Neill, Glen Broder) do not have publicly-available recordings. I hope to hear a full report from one of the many people that made it! Here’s what I could find: the Gilliland really allows the trumpeter to soar and has interesting accompaniment parts to boot. The Cable movement, entitled “Ode to Rosalind,” is delicate, colorful, and lyrical. The Wijeratne is only available in full recording on MIDI was performed by the Memorial University of Newfoundland Wind Ensemble and continent crusher Jason Caslor in this fabulous YouTube video (thank you, Jason for the tip!). The whole thing is a very rhythmic and contemporary sounding, fitting for a piece driven by percussion. with some longer lines thrown in for the winds. The fourth movement, a percussion cadenza, sounds great and is very well-written for the instruments.

The afternoon continued with the San Jose Wind Symphony conducted by Edward Harris, who also so graciously and ably hosted the conference. They had a great program which included the following:

Magnolia Star by Steve Danyew

Concerto Grosso for Saxophone Quartet by William Bolcom (featuring the Premiere Saxophone Quartet)

Mare Tranquillitatis by Roger Zare

Symphony no. 4: Bookmarks from Japan by Julie Giroux

I have had the pleasure of hearing both the Bolcom and the Giroux at past events by other bands. The Bolcom is an arresting display of both saxophone and compositional virtuosity that spans a range of genres. The Giroux paints a series of vivid portraits of places in Japan and has held up to multiple listens and performances. It sounds both sophisticated and fun to play. As for the others, the Zare is a wonderful, contemporary, slow showpiece for band. The Danyew is a glittery and percussive concert opener.

The evening headliners were the Dallas Winds conducted by Jerry Junkin, playing the following:

Millennium Canons by Kevin Puts (trans. Mark Spede)

The Polygon of Time by Lam Lai

Concerto for Flute op. 39 by Lowell Liebermann (trans. Brian Shaw) (Marianne Gedigian, flute soloist)

(intermission)

Symphony for Band: Wine Dark Sea by John Mackey

The first half of this program is all new to me. The Puts makes me wish for a better trumpet section, no matter how good mine might already be. In general, it is another glittery concert opener that can make a band sound impressive in the right hands. I could not find a recording for the Lai, but it looks as though Maestro Junkin has performed it in the past with the Hong Kong Wind Philharmonia. The Liebermann is also in Junkin’s previous repertoire: the YouTube recording I found features him with the University of Texas Wind Ensemble and tonight’s soloist, Marianne Gedigian. The first movement immediately grabs with its slightly mysterious melody, then unfolds and grows organically from there. The second movement sounds like a dark lullaby. The third movement is a witty and slightly dark presto whose canon effects suggest a dialogue between soloist and various sections of the ensemble.

Moving on to the second half, I finally had the pleasure of hearing Mackey’s Wine Dark Sea in person at the CBDNA conference this past spring. While it almost lost me in the beginning (I think that Mackey overused “effects” gestures in general), by the time the clarinet and harp music that opened the second movement arrived I was definitely paying attention. I can only imagine that it was even better tonight in Junkin’s hands, since he premiered it and then took it on a world tour. This is a piece that we are sure to hear a lot more of.

There was also a composer forum today, which I would have loved to see.  It featured John Mackey, Johan de Meij, Brett Abigaña, Yo Goto, and Adam Gorb.  These are all composers worth your attention, so I have linked here to all of their websites!

So ends another day at WASBE. It is exciting to see repertoire from around the world on these lists! It all culminates tomorrow. See you (virtually) then.

I am home, and the fully remote WASBE blogging begins with a Canada and video game themed day (you’ll see). The remote blogging almost got me into trouble yesterday, as I nearly left out a concert! Today, I will discuss the morning repertoire session and the three concerts. When I don’t know a piece, I will attempt to find a recording on the Internet so as to deliver something resembling and opinion. Today’s repertoire session again featured a Canadian band that is doing double duty as a concert ensemble. Tomorrow’s will be the same. Oh, Canada! The repertoire included:

Visionary for Wind Ensemble by Kenneth Froelich

Miniatures Brasilianes (select movements) by Hudson Noguiera

Motus Agni by Patrick Hahn

Sea Goddess by Hioaki Kataoka

All of these are new to me, which means the repertoire committee is doing a great job! I could find no recording for the Froelich, save one that Gilroy Publications website that required a login for a listen. This is no way to promote music, folks. The bits of Noguiera I heard on YouTube are by turns lyrical and seriously dance-like, and they use the resources of the wind band well. The piece certainly possesses a distinctly Brazilian flavor. The Hahn betrays the composer’s youth (born 1995) with its wandering textures and rapidly shifting colors. It is almost too busy to know what to listen to. Sea Goddess starts with a loud chord and then lets percussion take the lead (mostly) to build a seascape. Its reliance on percussion effects and pretty but unchallenging melodies doesn’t do much for me. It later gets into a groove that sounds like video game music, specifically a Mega Man level.

The first afternoon concert featured the Pacific Symphonic Wind Ensemble led by David Branter, also the stars of yesterday’s repertoire session, making it officially Canada Day at WASBE! Their concert included:

Commando March by Samuel Barber

The Banks of Newfoundland by Howard Cable

Concerto for Clarinet and Wind Ensemble by Frank Ticheli (soloist Michelle Anderson)

Connections by David Branter

Pavanne by Morton Gould

Seaquam: A Journey to the Sky by Fred Stride

Commando March sounds like the World War II propaganda piece it was meant to be. It is clever and soldier-y, with a solid and satisfying ending, but it lacks Barber’s famous lyricism. The Cable provides a varied and interesting, if a little bit standard, take on what I’m guessing is a melody from Newfoundland. The Ticheli sounds true to his idiom, yet it also captures well the spirits of its respective dedicatees, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein. I was unable to find a recording of the Branter. David, I would be very happy if you could send one once you have it! Pavanne is a light romp, showing the more pops side of Gould’s well-known compositional skill. The bits of the Stride that I could hear through Amazon’s preview function sounded like percussion effects and moody woodwind solos. I would have to hear more to really understand it, and I can do it if I purchase the PSWE CD on which they recorded it. Clearly, this group has a history with this piece. I hope it shows!

The PSWE shared the afternoon with the New Edmonton Wind Sinfonia conducted by Raymond Baril, and also the performers on tomorrow’s reading session. Their program covered the following:

Fall Fair by Godfrey Ridout

Ar-gard by Kitti Kuremanee

Riften Weed by Julie Giroux

Colour Wheel by Malcolm Forsyth

Dreaming of the Masters III by Allan Gilliland (Jens Lindemann, trumpet soloist)

Masque by Kenneth Hesketh

These again were all new to me. Fall Fair is a lively overture like a great many others that we have all heard before. Ar-gard is percussive, expressionist, and rather dark and brutal. It has a very distinctive sound, perhaps indicative of the fact that it is the only band piece (let alone piece of art music period) by a Thai composer that I have ever heard. Riften Wed is based on a town in the world of the video game Skyrim (one of my favorites before conducting study consumed my life). There is a lot to like in the melodic writing, and I WILL be programming this some day. Thank you, Julie, for legitimizing the time so many of us have spent playing this excellent game – I will have to fire up the game and visit Riften again to properly study this piece! I could not find a recording of Colour Wheel. The Gilliland is a romp through various jazz styles that is sure to be thrilling with Jens Lindemann as soloist. The Hesketh is boilerplate concert closer that is by turns aggressive, light, and lyrical.

The Lone Star Wind Orchestra from (where else?) Texas presented the evening’s concert under the leadership of legendary conductor and prolific recording producer (and, little known fact, fellow Connecticut native!) Eugene Migliaro Corporon. While I have never heard the Lone Star players, Corporon’s bands at the University of North Texas are known for their quality sound and precision. Their mostly-American program consisted of:

Circus Overture by William Bolcom

Luminosity: Concerto for Wind Orchestra by Joseph Schwantner

Walking the Dog by George Gershwin (transcribed by Derek Bourgeois)

An Gé Fhiáin/The Wild Goose by Ryan George

(intermission)

Bells Across the Atlantic by Adam Gorb

Aspen Jubilee by Ron Nelson

Jungla by Ferrer Ferran

Once again, I am facing a lot of repertoire I’ve never seen before. That is part of the reason we go to (or, in my case now, follow from afar) conferences. The Bolcom is brand new, so no recording exists for me to listen to. Ditto the Schwantner. The Gershwin is an old, light show number that sounds like an interlude. It must mark a good change of mood before the George kicks the band back into high gear. The Wild Goose sounds like a technical tour-de-force for many of the band members. All of these notes do seem to be in service of a program, so they are not wasted, however some sections (on the recording) do seem to be overlong and perhaps a little more challenging than they absolutely need to be.

The Gorb makes fun and interesting use of bell motifs. It seems not quite a fitting entry to the Nelson, whose opening resembles the former piece. Once it gets going, however, Aspen Jubilee settles into a hoe-down-inspired grove. Its middle section is among Nelson’s most beautiful and colorful lyrical writing. The Ferran appears to be set in the African jungle, as the percussion at the beginning do not hesitate to remind us. Parts of it seem a little on the nose for my taste.

Three more concerts tomorrow!

It’s my last day at WASBE in person! Of course I’m very sad to leave, especially as I saw many newly-arrived faces this morning. I had the great fortune to be able to attend this morning’s repertoire session before flying home. This one featured the Pacific Symphonic Wind Ensemble from Vancouver and their director David Branter. They were a very capable group and certainly have a voracious appetite for repertoire, given that they not only played the session but are schedule to play a concert tomorrow as well! They were also extraordinarily loud, particularly the percussion section! The repertoire was as follows:

Symphony no. 6 by Andrew Boysen

Song and Legend by Eiji Suzuki

Spirit of the Dance by Rob Wiffin

Luminescence by David Biedenbender

Rhythms of the Spirit by James Stephenson

Excerpts of the Boysen came first. This was quite hyped by the session organizers, and most of it seemed to deserve the acclaim. It is in four movements connected by three intermezzos. Movement I is a busy and bright allegro – I suspect a softer performance than what I heard today would do it proper justice and reveal more nuance. Movement II is a fun and dark scherzo, which comes before III, the transparent and moving slow movement. IV was even more lively and busy, with a couple of moments that had me thinking “play to the box!” In these big moments in both outer movements, I think Mr. Boysen overused high trumpet hits, but otherwise I was impressed with the concept and construction of the piece. The Suzuki (in two movements) started off wonderfully interesting, with a lot of extended harmony going in unexpected directions, but it turned into a series of sus4s once the piece really got going, still with the occasional harmonic surprise. The bit of the second movement that we heard was primal brass power, which then relaxed. The Wiffin suffers from a terrible title: “Spirit of the Dance” suggests to me that there must be costumes and glitter involved. The piece itself is much better than its title. The first movement in particular is really fun, starting with some rhythmic germs (that require ABSOLUTE precision) and expanding into a big, harmonically juicy texture. The second movement is pretty (full stop), and the third uses a 7/4 Latin-ish rhythm with some lyricism thrown in for an effective closer. The Biedenbender started off with some extreme register colors (which someone later pointed out sounded a lot like John Mackey), and continued to a lyrical middle, but it lost my attention in a wash of loud sounds near the end. The Stephenson started slow and stately. As soon as it picked up, there was a very interesting and fun rhythm involved. I again felt myself tuning out during the slow music, which led to a rather unsatisfying ending. On the more positive side, it was clear that all of these pieces were constructed with great care and thought.  Thanks again to Jeff and Cynthia and the rest of the repertoire committee for putting together these great sessions.

So ends my in-person WASBE blogging. I will, however, continue to write daily about the repertoire of the day, even if I am less able to comment on it and certainly unable to evaluate performances. This will at least keep this blog up to date on the latest repertoire that world leaders in wind bands are hearing. First, a correction from yesterday: I ran into the legendary Björn Bus this morning on my way out the door, and he filled me in on the LBO encore. It was Zueignung by Richard Strauss, from an early set of songs (1885, op. 10/1), arranged by Oliver Davis. Now I owe Björn 2 beers…  Also, an apology to the University of Louisville band, who I inadvertently left off the blog.  That is now fixed below!

The first concert I missed was by the Temple University Chamber Winds led by the ever-dynamic Emily Threinen. I’ve worked with her and heard her bands many a time, so I am confident that this concert must have sounded great. Here is what they played, on a program called “Homage to Mozart” (according to the WASBE conference program, which will be my primary reference going forward):

Overture to “The Marriage of Figaro” by WA Mozart (arr. Johann N. Wendt)

Hommage à l’ami Papageno by Jean Françaix

Figures in the Garden by Jonathan Dove

Mozart new-look by Jean Françaix

Serenade in C-minor K. 388/384a by WA Mozart

The “Marriage of Figaro” arrangement is contemporary with Mozart, following the common practice of opera overtures and excerpts being arranged for Harmonie for the purpose of being played outdoors and promoting the full stage work. The Dove is a fascinating minimalist sort of piece that is meant to be paired (as it was this afternoon) with the Marriage of Figaro overture. It references several scenes from that opera in a modern, reflective language. The C-minor serenade, as I said yesterday, is a staple of the chamber wind repertoire. Click the link above to read more of my thoughts about it – it was a very unusual work for its time! I knew neither of the Françaix pieces before this writing, but a quick listen on YouTube reveals that the “Homage” is a witty deconstruction and variation on Papageno’s music from “The Magic Flute.” Mozart new-look is subtitled “Petite fantaisie pour contrebasse et instruments à vent sur la sérénade de ‘Don Giovanni,’” which pretty much sums up the 2.5 minutes piece. (For the non-French-readers, that’s “little fantasy for string bass and wind instruments upon the serenade from ‘Don Giovanni.’”) Bravo to Emily and her excellent Temple students (I heard them at CBDNA – they were amazing) on their excellent and thoughtful program. I hope to have more to say about those Françaix numbers and the Dove in dedicated posts to come!

This afternoon’s second concert featured the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Wind Ensemble directed by fellow former Gary Hill student John Climer and guest conductor Mark Norman. Their program, “Sights, Sounds and Songs,” featured the following:

Magneticfireflies by Augusta Read Thomas (featuring visuals by Christopher Burns)

Caricatures by Jere Hutcheson (5 of the 9 listed on Hutcheson’s website: Marcel Marceau, Edgar Allan Poe, Vincent Van Gogh, Andy Warhol, Camille Saint-Saëns)

Lament for Wind Orchestra by Chang Su Koh

Five Folksongs for Soprano and Band by Bernard Gilmore (with soprano Tanya Kruse Ruck)

Newsreel in Five Shots by William Schuman (featuring guest conductor Mark Norman and an actual film!)

Country Band March by Charles Ives (arr. James B. Sinclair)

Of these, I only know the last two. Country Band is of course famous for being the original mixed-up march, meant to sound like a poorly-coordinated community band faking their way through a standard march, complete with rhythmic hiccups, missed accidentals, inadvertent tempo fluctuations, and whole sections getting lost. The Schuman was his earliest band work, and was meant to depict the newsreels that would be shown at movie theatres in the days before television. As for the others, quick YouTube listening (again) reveals that the Read Thomas is a rather aggressive and dissonant, loud and fast work. I’m sure that the visuals will add an interesting dimension to it. I could not find a recording of the Hutcheson, but I am very intrigued by the concept. The Koh is also aggressive and dissonant, but in a slow and tortured fashion. It gives the impression of hair-pulling, heart-rending grief, rather than the usual quiet introspection, giving it a unique place in the repertoire. In looking up the Gilmore, I found a YouTube recording of our friends the Israeli National Youth Wind Symphony playing it mere months ago. These five songs are distinct character studies in the great tradition of accompanied solo song. The soprano writing is relatively straightforward, and the wind band accompaniment is at times spare, rarely intrusive, and quite tasteful. I congratulate Dr. Climer on a well-conceived and varied program!

The evening concert starred the University of Louisville Wind Ensemble led by Frederick Speck and guest conductor Amy Acklin.  I have not heard them play, and I would love to change that!  They played the following:

In the World of Sprits by Bruce Broughton

Al Fresco by Karel Husa

Engelsflügel by Brett Dean

Sinfonietta no. 2 by Henk Badings

(intermission)

Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Wind Ensemble by Frank Ticheli (soloist Adam McCord)

The Frozen Cathedral by John Mackey

I had the great fortune to hear both of the pieces in the second half while I was a DMA student at Arizona State, both played by the ASU Wind Orchestra led by my mentor Gary Hill.  The Ticheli jumps right into technical wizardry for the soloist and demands a great deal of precision and musicality from the ensemble as well, particularly in the third movement.  For me, the pensive second movement is the highlight, though I also enjoy the jazz references in the first movement.  The Mackey Frozen Cathedral is, in my opinion, one of the best new pieces of the 21st century – follow the link above to see my dedicated post about it.  It succeeds partially through absolutely sparkling use of antiphony, partially by sounding absolutely massive (I hope they used the optional organ part in this performance!), and partially by surprise and misdirection: during the final triumphant chorale, for instance, the trombones repeatedly interject with in-your-face non-chord tones, as if reminding us of the inhuman terror of this immense natural edifice.

The pieces on the first half are all new to me, so another trip to YouTube is in order.  In the case of the Broughton, the recording actually appears on the composer’s website, and is linked above.  My immediate impressions are of a lot of woodwind work.  The Husa is well-known.  It starts softly (I couldn’t hear the opening over my Phoenix-strength home air conditioning), gets eerie, then launches into a jazzy melody with some aggressive tendencies.  The saxophone section seems to play a recurring character role.  I can find no recording of the Dean, but the composer describes it as “a short essay in mostly hushed, inward, even flighty textures.”  Call me intrigued: I’d love to hear it.  The Badings is a full four movement symphony (I’ve linked above to recording on Vimeo).  The first movement is dark and shimmery owing to some cluster chords.  The second retains the dissonant language and makes it into a sort of duple-meter scherzo.  The third is slow again and still dissonant, but this time lyrical and canonic.  The final movement shines an optimistic light on the still-dissonant language before getting aggressive.  This piece is definitely worth another look!

More to come tomorrow.  I hope those still at the conference are enjoying it!

WASBE day 3 is in the books, sadly my last full day here.

The day began with a repertoire session featuring the Ohlone Wind Orchestra from Fremont, California directed by Tony Clements. They had an exciting but very bright sound that was often quite tight but also showed some of the inconsistencies typical of a community (in this case college/community) band. They gave committed performances of several quite difficult works:

Grand Fanfare by Giancarlo Castro D’Addona

For the President’s Own by John Williams

Salome by Gareth Wood

Starsplitter by Philip Rothman

Berglicht by Oliver Waespi

Today’s session for me was much less appealing than yesterday’s. Most of the music to me seemed trite and cliché. The Grand Fanfare started off like a fanfare indeed, then followed exactly the form of a Swearingen overture. Salome was one band cliché after another, and in the inevitable comparison to Strauss’s pathbreaking opera, it came up well short. I had an immediate positive reaction to the chord structure and color palette in Berglicht, but it soon settled into another collection of clichés. None of these pieces really displayed any originality. More on the positive end was Starsplitter. Rothman has a flair for ensemble color and a clear voice (with some resonance of John Adams in this piece), but it comes with some rather extreme difficulty, particularly in the woodwinds. The most intriguing piece on the session was the Williams. Perhaps ironically, it sounded the least like a movie soundtrack of them all. The writing was linear verging on contrapuntal and somewhat virtuosic, which was appropriate for a Marine Band showpiece. This also made it hard to process immediately, and thus I would find it difficult to justify programming it. But its un-movie-like sound reminded me that John Williams is actually an excellent, thinking composer who has adapted his music to many a situation in the past, and whose range can never be underestimated.

After a very short break, Odd Terje Lysebo from Norway took the stage to give a lecture on quality in music, an important and fraught topic in wind band circles (or the “wind ghetto” as Lysebo wryly called us). This is mostly a repertoire blog, so I will not go into detail on this talk, other than to list (below) the handful of pieces that he singled out as possessing quality, and to say that I wish he had spent more time explaining WHY he saw quality in them. Sadly for the past but happily for the future, he mentioned two decades-old wind band symphonies that were unknown to me, despite my ongoing wind band symphony research! The pieces mentioned include:

Waltz from “The Priest and His Servant Balda” by Dmitri Shostakovich

4’33” by John Cage (yes, I have a post about this – it was last year’s April Fools joke!)

Sonatas: Six Pieces of Music by Paul Ruders

Aus einem Tagebuch by Heiner Goebbels

Symfonie für Bläser und Schlagzeug by Hilding Rosenberg

Vind by Ketil Hovslef

Gran Duo by Magnus Lindberg

Hours of the Soul: Poem for Large Wind Orchestra and Mezzo Soprano by Sofia Gubaidulina

Music for Winds by Stanislav Skrowaczewsky

Konzert für Klavier und Bläser by Karl Amadeus Hartman

Modlys (backlight) by Per Nørgaard

Eclosions by Jean Marie Simonis

Symphony no. 4 “Syrinx” by Jean Louel

Concerto for Symphonic Band by Franz Constant

I hope to have entries up for more of these someday, especially if they are, indeed, high quality pieces.

After a wonderful lunch with some BkWS members and friends, I made it back to the theater just in time for the Israel National Youth Wind Orchestra directed by Motti Miron. I was immediately struck by an electricity that seemed to flow between these very young players. They moved and breathed together throughout the entire performance. I was particularly mesmerized by the clarinet section that seemed to emote as one, and the pair of bassoonists who would often exchange knowing glances before or after launching into action. On top of that, they sounded great, especially as more of them joined in. Their sound was remarkably mature, and only really showed its youth in the occasional solo passage or in minor intonation or overblowing lapses. Their repertoire was as follows:

Fanfare to Israel by Paul Ben-Haim

From the Village of East-Europe by Andre Hajdu

Winds of Yemen – Picture for Symphonic Band by Boris Pigovat

(intermission)

Trrrra-pa-tam by Benjamin Yusupov

Hillulah by Haim Permont

Dedicated to Marc Chagall “Havah Nagila” – Jewish Rhapsody for Wind Orchestra by Boris Pigovat

The fanfare (Ben-Haim) was a good start to the program, and given its vintage (1950), I’m sure it has a lot of meaning to the young members of this ensemble. The Hajdu was a mostly very playful dance suite that took a somber turn near the end before racing to a very exciting finish. The first Pigovat (Winds of Yemen) sounded to me, again, like a string of clichés, this time with a lot of dissonance and very loud playing. The opening of the Yusupov actually caused me to laugh out loud, beginning as it did with a very short lyrical solo punctuated by the loudest possible full ensemble chord. I found myself unable to take the rest of it seriously. The Permont was the highlight of the program for me, particularly the wonderful odd-meter contrapuntal dance that dominated the piece.   The second Pigovat (Hava Nagila) somehow avoided cliché despite treating an extremely familiar tune. After some overly long solos in the beginning, it turned into an exciting romp to end a very impressive concert.

One (more) curmudgeonly note: I am not sure why these concerts require a 30 minute intermission, as both Israel and Brooklyn (and I think LBO as well) have had. It seemed interminable from the audience end. I can’t imagine what it must be like for the players! Please, WASBE, let’s shorten these!

A trip to Jeff Girard’s Midwest Music booth almost cost me my life savings in score purchases. Thankfully, I still made it in time to continent-strider Jason Caslor’s presentation on Georgian composer Giya Kancheli’s Magnum Ignotum, a very unique piece for 9 winds, string bass, and tape. I stuck around also for Karen Fannin’s talk about interdisciplinary work, particularly research into conductors by people outside of music and her personal application of it in business circles. She showed a number of demonstrations of conductor/ensemble interaction that she has used to demonstrate leadership concepts to businesspeople. In those, she (wisely, I think) used two staples of the wind chamber music repertoire: the Mozart C-minor Serenade and the Gounod Petite Symphonie (about which I can’t believe I still have no post!)

The day ended with the Landesblasorchester Baden-Württemberg under the excellent direction of Björn Bus. From the first note, I could tell this band was something special. They had a GREAT overall brass sound, dominated by the horns. They also had 8 million clarinets (I counted–there was time) which made for a very rich and full ensemble sound but somehow still allowed for plenty of transparency. Even more so than the Israelis before them, they moved and breathed as a unit, lending expression and direction to every phrase and musical idea. Maestro Bus’s conducting had everything to do with this, lending shape and direction to every moment of the music. Their repertoire was:

Ouverture Solennelle, op. 72 by Reinhold Glière (arr. Robert Grechesky)

Cap Kennedy by Serge Lancen

Bachseits by Johannes Stert

(intermission)

The Fools Journey (complete 3 parts) by Hans van der Heide

ENCORE (well deserved) something beautiful that I couldn’t identify (not “Es Verdankt” as someone around me suggested)

The Glière was an ideal opening showpiece for band, highlighting the strengths of every section and the ensemble as a whole. The piece constantly had forward momentum, thanks to Herr Bus’s inspired leadership. The Lancen was a meaty tone poem about a space shuttle launch. There was plenty of variety, and it was quite exciting at times. The same can be said for the Stert, which is based on a solo violin work by J.S. Bach (and which featured uniquely amazing solos from e-flat clarinet and piccolo trumpet). In the case of both pieces, I feel strongly that they owe their success to the rock-solid and inspired musicianship of this band and especially Herr Bus, whose musical intentions were compelling, clear, and organic. (You might say I’m a fan.) Otherwise, they might have fallen flat as so much unknown, under-musicked repertoire does in less capable hands. To put it another way, one of my mentors at Arizona State, Wayne Bailey, often said that there were certain pieces (in fact, most in existence) that could be “defeated” by a bad band. I think these pieces are among them, however this ensemble and their conductor lifted them to soaring, unequivocal victory.

The excellent musicianship continued into The Fool’s Journey. At nearly an hour in length, it would have been easy for this to devolve into misdirected mush. But the piece itself was extremely well organized and expertly paced: only once did I feel like it was starting get overlong or repetitive, and AT THAT VERY MOMENT the piece ended. There were some moments where it veered towards recycled ideas. For instance, I’m sure we’ve all heard plenty of flute and harp love music in our time. Also, as evidenced by the fact that “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” is the least effective number in The Book of Mormon the musical, the fire and brimstone Devil treatment seemed overmuch. Doesn’t the Devil also indulge in more sneaky evils like making you evade your taxes or forget your grandmother’s birthday? For me, the highlight came at the end of the part I going into part II – I just wanted to hear that sound forever. And so I was glad when the encore came up. LBO folks, I’d love to know what that gorgeous piece was. And Björn Bus, I’d love to buy you a beer if you’re at the hotel bar tonight!

What a fine day it has been. Thank you, WASBE!

Finally, a promised (coerced) shout-out to yesterday’s lunch and dinner buddies Shiree Williams, Travis Cross, Rickey Badua, amazing contintent-crosser Jason Caslor, and the ever-inquisitive and inspiring Brian Diller. You guys continue to help make this conference great!

It’s WASBE day 2! Before getting to today’s events, I need to mention three things that have come up regarding yesterday’s post:

  1. I spent a lot of my post yesterday going on about band directors. But as Anthony Reimer so appropriately pointed out on Twitter last night, WASBE is not just for band directors. It’s also a group for composers, performers, publishers, music industry people, and wind band enthusiasts in general. Thanks for the reminder, Anthony!
  1. I am not the only person running a blog about this conference. Fergus O’Carroll is also keeping a daily digest, and he is the official WASBE blogger. You can see his posts at this link. In a wonderful twist of fate, we sat next to each other at the University of Houston concert today! It will be interesting to see if there is any difference in our impressions.
  1. I am absolutely (and pleasantly) shocked at the amount of attention yesterday’s post got. It had over 100 hits overnight! That’s more than any of my repertoire posts have gotten in so short of time, by a lot. Some of my repertoire posts haven’t gotten that much attention over a period of YEARS. For instance, my favorite new piece of the 21st century is Steve Bryant’s AMAZING Concerto for Wind Ensemble. My post about this has had a paltry 52 views over its 17 month life. That tells me that this conference blogging really has legs (and that some of repertoire posts need more attention). I will thus continue to do my best to do this conference justice.

So, onto day 2. It started with an excellent repertoire session (the first of six, we’re told) organized by WASBE board member Cynthia Johnston Turner and Jeff Girard of Midwest Music. This first one featured the James Logan High School Band led by Adam Wilke and Patrick Refsnider. This was a truly phenomenal high school band: they sounded uniformly great and really brought life to this new and often difficult music. They played the following:

D’un Matin de Printemps – Lili Boulanger (arr. Francois Branciard)

Impressionist Prints by Aldo Forte (movements 4, 5, and 6)

Witches’ Cauldron (De Heksenketel) by Alexander Comitas

Letter from Sado by Jodie Blackshaw

Roma by Valerie Coleman

All of these were very well played by the band and were well-written pieces of music. The Comitas was a largely-dissonant setting of the poem around Shakespeare’s famous “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble” for wind instruments. The Blackshaw was an easier (grade 2-3) piece with a heavy improvisatory element, sorting the instruments into color-themed teams and including specific score directions. Was this too “kiddy,” I asked myself? Yes, I think, but the resulting music is still quite compelling. I did not love the Coleman, with its rapid shifts between styles, yet I still found myself humming its main theme as I left the session. My favorite pieces in this session were the Boulanger and the Forte. The Boulanger has an instantly appealing sound, something akin to a more authentic American in Paris, very urbane and French. It is also within reach of high school players, which is a plus. The Forte was similarly appealing in its sound. Forte really knows how to handle the band to achieve a great deal of different textures and colors. This is especially key to this piece, which is based on impressionist paintings.

After a relaxing lunch with friends (see below), I attended the University of Houston concert, conducted by David Bertman. This was utterly amazing and unexpected. They began ordinarily enough, with Joan Tower’s Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman (with, ironically, only two women out of the nearly 20 players on stage. Uncommon indeed!). This immediately displayed a strong and flexible brass sound. The bulk of the program was Leroy Osmon’s The Garden of Earthly delights, a ballet for wind band. It was, in a word, stunning. After an (overly long) introduction with a video projection, two dancers entered as Adam and Eve, and thus began an extremely sensual, vivid, and virtuosic dance display that lasted most of an hour, covering many a lustful, mystical, and terrifying story. The ensemble displayed not a single hair out of place, perfectly executing their accompaniment with flair, precision, and an outstanding grasp of its musical direction. In addition, it is worth noting the difficulty of putting on a live, accompanied dance concert, complete with lights and staging, at home. Bertman and crew did all of this ON THE ROAD in an unfamiliar hall, which is a herculean feat. This was an utterly unforgettable concert that they, as well as Leroy Osmon and the dancers and everyone else involved, should be extremely proud of.

After another break I headed over to Dr. Christian Zembower’s session on “Singular Successes,” essentially deceased composers who wrote only one work for wind band. He identified 11 of these, and he divided them into three categories, as follows:

KNOWN

Dionysiaques by Florent Schmitt

Commando March by Samuel Barber

Theme and Variation op. 43a by Arnold Schoenberg

Tunbridge Fair by Walter Piston

Canzona by Peter Mennin

LESSER KNOWN

Vanity Fair by Percy Fletcher

Huntingtower Ballad for Band by Ottorino Respighi

A Solemn Music by Virgil Thomson

American Games by Nicholas Maw

UNKNOWN

Five American Folk Songs by Elie Siegmeister

March with Trumpets by William Bergsma

He suggested that Edwin Franko Goldman was instrumental in the creation of several of these. He also recommended more attention be paid to the lesser knowns and unknowns. All told, it was a very informative session.

Dinner with friends (again, see below) gave us a chance to enjoy the beautiful San Jose weather before heading to the Brooklyn Wind Symphony concert conducted by Jeff W. Ball. Full disclosure: I’ve known Jeff and BkWS for a long time, having spent a lot of time with them in my former New York City life. So I may be biased towards their style of doing things. After some very thoughtful and conceptual concerts at this conference, it felt really great to have an exciting, unpretentious BAND concert. There were no set changes, everyone played in every piece, and the house was PACKED. Their repertoire was extremely well chosen and nicely varied, as such:

joyRIDE by Michael Markowski

Gone by Scott McAllister

Concerto for Clarinet and Wind Ensemble by David Maslanka (soloist Jeffrey Hodes)

Flourishes and Meditations on a Renaissance Theme by Michael Gandolfi

(intermission)

Concerto for Flute and Wind Orchestra by Mike Mower (Samantha K. Enriquez, soloist)

La Fiesta Mexicana by H. Owen Reed

Moth by Viet Cuong

Despite there being only one piece written before 2000 on this program (thank you, Dr. Reed), it still achieved a variety of styles and managed not to repeat itself. The Markowski, an energetic riff on Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” displayed his usual flare for color and excellent pacing. The McAllister requires HUGE amounts of control to pull off, and these Brooklynites did it with style. The Maslanka featured a truly stunning solo performance, and I loved almost every bit of its musical material. However, after the first movement came to very logical close but then kept going, I found myself counting the number of false endings (3 in movement I, 2 in movement II). Still, it is a concerto worth repeating. The Gandolfi sounded very hard, but fun. The intermission was well-deserved after that! They got going again with the Mower, which was sexy and sophisticated in its first movement, which featured excellent solo playing and masterful orchestration. The third movement was equally well-executed, but tried too hard to sound like a big band for my taste. That said, the BkWS players demonstrated a mastery of both Latin and swing style that few concert bands could match. This carried over into the Reed, of which the mariachi sections were among many highlights. Finally, Viet Cuong’s Moth was an audacious, energetic closer. Cuong’s flare for color (and horn torture) was on full display, as was Brooklyn’s utter commitment to their art form. I can’t emphasize enough how much I enjoyed this show, and how proud I am to know many of its members. As much as I tried to do this myself back in my Columbia days, they REALLY ARE putting New York City back on the wind band map.

Now, I am late for the reception. I look forward to seeing my friends (see below) down there.

Below: I’ll cover the friends tomorrow!!

So I’m at the WASBE (World Association of Symphonic Bands and Ensembles) conference in sunny San Jose, California.  WASBE is about advocating for wind bands worldwide and encouraging international collaboration, and I have come for those reasons.  Naturally, I am particularly interested in repertoire, and so is WASBE: there are concerts from bands around the world this week, as well as repertoire reading sessions and presentations.  And there are people here from just about all of the band-crazy world, from the USA to Canada to Germany to Australia to Japan, and more.

San Jose is a wonderful conference site, with a fairly compact downtown that adjoins San Jose State University, whose band director Ed Harris is hosting the convention.  The hotel, concert venue, and university are all within easy walking distance of each other, and they are surrounded by restaurants.  Oddly, most of the restaurants are closed on Sundays, which made first-day dining somewhat of a challenge.  But the extremely agreeable climate made walking the streets in search of food a very pleasant experience indeed.

So far, the thrust of the conference seems to have been the “and Ensembles” part of WASBE.  The conference officially opened with a concert by the San Francisco Wind Ensemble, led by Martin Seggelke.  They played the following (note: I have not yet written about any of this music, so links will only go to composer information when I have it already up here):

Miniatur-Ouvertüre by Ernst Toch

World – Why – Die II ? by Rolf Rudin (world premiere)

Book of the Dead by Roy Magnuson (concerto for soprano saxophone featuring Paul Nolen)

Sinfonia no. 1 “Kaprekar” by Martínez Gallego

The Toch featured a small ensemble, thus opening the conference with a chamber group rather than a traditional concert band.  It was witty and noodly, as one might expect.  The rest of the pieces all used a full symphonic band.  The Gallego even added cellos, fitting with the Spanish tradition for which it was written.  Of the large pieces, the Gallego was also the most successful, coming from a melodic and contrapuntal conception, and containing a good variety of ideas and textures.  The ending sounded strongly like Clifton Williams!  At 30 minutes, it was also too long to truly hold the listener’s attention, especially in its single movement form.  The same can be said of the other large ensemble pieces.  Given that the entire program was made up of contemporary pieces, each with a unique musical language, the program would have benefited by including something from the standard repertoire or an earlier style period, if only to clean the ears of the audience for a fresh perspective on all of the new music.  That said, the SFWE was exquisitely balanced and set a very high bar for the rest of the conference.

The evening began with a reception for WASBE members at Gordon Biersch, again just walking distance from the concert hall.  This included an open bar, which is a dangerous thing in the hands of band directors!  It also included a keynote speech and performance by Jens Lindemann, an extraordinary trumpeter and educator.  He played a stunningly gorgeous version of Piazzolla’s Oblivion with the help of two hastily-recruited harpists before launching into his speech, in which he reminded us all that middle school and high school band directors often are the most inspirational figures in a young musician’s life.  That’s powerful stuff to a room full of band directors!

The evening concluded with a concert by the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra under Michael Votta.  This is not a wind orchestra in the European sense of a large, massed group, quite the opposite in fact.  This group is dedicated to chamber music, with a personnel list totaling 22 musicians.  Never did they all play at the same time, but they were cleverly deployed in collage format, with no breaks between pieces and vastly different styles and instrumentations (often solo works) juxtaposed quite successfully.  Their program looked like this:

Overture to “The Magic Flute” by WA Mozart (arr. Bastiaan Blomhert) for (basically) harmonie

Grumpy Troll by Michael Forbes for solo tuba (Craig Potter)

Fratres by Arvo Pärt (arr. Beat Brinner) for harmonie

Density 21.5 by Edgard Varese for solo flute (Caroline Rohm)

Chamber Symphony by Arnold Schoenberg for Chamber ORCHESTRA (more on that later)

(intermission)

Comix Trips by Paul Lansky for Chamber Winds

Preludia-Fantasia by Gaspar Cassadó for solo cello

Libertango by Astor Piazzolla for unconducted chamber winds

As I said already, the collage elements worked very well, though it was somewhat distracting having large groups of musicians leave the stage during the solo performances (remember, there is no “between pieces” in this setup.) The Schoenberg, which features a full string quartet plus bass, is NOT a wind piece: the strings dominate the sound consistently, despite being outnumbered by the winds.  I’d be glad to hear a chamber orchestra do it, but having it on a wind band program makes the wind players take a LITERAL back seat to the strings.  I know I am disagreeing with many a great figure on this matter (Bob Reynolds, Eugene Corporon, and of course Mike Votta, to name a few), but I think we miss what a wind band is about by programming this piece and others like it.  Moving on (off the soapbox), the highlight of the program was the Lansky, which presented fun and varied music in four movements, a symphony in all but name.  The Piazzolla was also interesting from the perspective of watching 14 young musicians play extremely well together without a conductor, but the title was misleading: it was not Piazzolla’s original Libertango, but rather a fantasy on it (that went a little long).  But it was still a strong end to a wonderfully varied and balanced program.

More to come tomorrow – stay tuned!

In a new feature for this blog, I’ll occasionally review new recordings of wind band music.  The first, Twisted Skyscape, spotlights the woodwinds.

The producers of Twisted Skyscape are direct about the purpose of their project: it is an advocacy album for both the woodwind orchestra and British composers. The British composers certainly represent themselves well, with a varied program of contemporary music ranging from dance-like to ethereal. And the woodwind orchestra, for the most part, serves as a successful and colorful vehicle for this music.

This album claims to be the first of its kind. This is mostly true, since an orchestra of mixed woodwinds only is a relatively new phenomenon. This woodwind orchestra uses specifically the woodwinds of the wind band (flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and saxophones, often in several sizes). However, while the creators of Twisted Skyscape can point to a number of standing woodwind orchestras within their musical circles, and even non-British composers like American Carter Pann have written for woodwind-only ensembles, groups like this don’t really exist as a common cultural phenomenon, at least not in the way that string orchestras, brass bands, and even percussion ensembles do. So in that way, this does indeed mark the coming-out of a new type of ensemble. And yet, the art music world has maintained something like a woodwind orchestra for more than two centuries in the form of Harmoniemusik. This ensemble, which peaked in popularity just before 1800, uses pairs of oboes, clarinets, and bassoons from the woodwind family, with French horns rounding out the middle voices. You might also see basset horns and a string bass, as in Mozart’s legendary Gran Partita. Ensembles derived from this mostly-woodwind makeup have a rich and fascinating repertoire with contributions from Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, Gounod, Richard Strauss, Willem van Otterloo, Jonathan Dove, and Lior Navok, to name but a few. The woodwind orchestra would thus expand its repertoire instantly by admitting French horns into its fold.

The woodwind soloists of the Czech Philharmonic make for a world-class woodwind ensemble. Their playing under Shea Lolin’s leadership is mostly flawless and quite musically compelling, with only the occasional lapse in ensemble blend, mostly due to consistently over-present low saxophones. On every track, the potential of the woodwind ensemble as an artistic medium is clear.

Philip Sparke’s Overture for Woodwinds provides a wonderful introduction to the sound world and color possibilities of this ensemble. Its stately opening showcases the full sound potential of the collected woodwinds. Gary Carpenter’s Pantomime began its life with Gran Partita instrumentation before being re-orchestrated by the composer for this recording. Perhaps because of this, there are times when the piece does not feel native to the genre, particularly in the fourth movement. This dance suite was derived from Carpenter’s musical Aladdin, and as such it has some dramatic and introspective moments among its relatively straightforward and melodic dance movements. These are often reminiscent of the wind band dance treatments of Robert Russell Bennett. Adam Gorb’s Battle Symphony successfully combines a medieval sound foundation with contemporary harmonic and timbral touches, much like Dello Joio’s Scenes from the Louvre or Poulenc’s Suite Francaise before it. The standout pieces on this album belong to Christopher Hussey, who was also a producer on the project. His two pieces, Dreamtide and the titular Twisted Skyscape, both extend the mood and color palette of the ensemble in exciting ways, especially on the more lyrical and ethereal end. They use the ensemble so well that the listener never once longs for any other instrument. This is especially remarkable in the case of Dreamtide, which was originally a choral piece. What unifies the five very different pieces on the album is their shared accessibility. Each one is immediately appealing and begs a second listen.

Twisted Skyscape the album represents a very promising start (if we accept that it is truly something new) for the woodwind orchestra. But what is the future of the genre, especially outside of Britain? The music presented here may already be able to find a place in school and university wind band programs in the USA, which are often hungry for good literature to work on in sectionals. But it will be just one option among many (including arrangements and existing Harmoniemusik), and is unlikely to lead to the establishment of dedicated woodwind orchestras. It will take a great deal more music like this and more full-throated advocacy by people like Shea Lolin and Christopher Hussey in order for the woodwind orchestra to spread as a distinct idea separate from its cousins the wind band, the orchestra, and Harmonie. For now, this repertoire can add some welcome variety to any group that would try it. And they should: it would be a thrill to hear this music live.

Twisted Skyscape is available for pre-order from www.twistedskyscape.com. It will be released worldwide on July 17, 2015.