Skip navigation

Tag Archives: Concerto

Joseph Schwantner (b. 1943) is an American composer and teacher.  He grew up in Chicago playing guitar and tuba.  He had early success at composition, winning the National Band Camp Award in 1959 when he was just 16.  He went on to undergraduate studies at the American Conservatory in Chicago, then masters and doctoral work at Northwestern University, which he finished in 1968.  He has served on the faculties of the Eastman School, the Juilliard School, and Yale.  His compositions have won him the Pulitzer Prize (1979), several Grammy nominations, and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  He is known for his eclectic combination of compositional techniques and his mystical orchestrations.  His important wind band works include …and the mountains rising nowhere (1977), From a Dark Millennium (1980), and In Evening’s Stillness (1996).

His Percussion Concerto first came into being as the Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra in 1994.  It was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for their 150th anniversary, and written with the percussionist Christopher Lamb as its intended soloist.  Lamb and the Philharmonic premiered the piece at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City on January 5, 1995.  It has subsequently been transcribed twice: once for two pianos and percussion, making it accessible to the recital repertoire, and again (by Andrew Boysen) for wind ensemble and percussion.  In both cases, the solo part is unaltered from the original.  The soloist uses an entire world of equipment in two different setups (behind the ensemble in the first and third movements, and dramatically in front in the second).  The three movements are motivically unified, making the piece a long development of a small amount of material.

Here is the wind band version by the University of Michigan Symphony Band (in three parts):

And the orchestral version, with Lamb as soloist:

Finally, here is the two piano version, with Bryan Hummel as soloist.  I had the privilege of conducting Bryan and the Arizona State University Symphony Orchestra in the first movement of the orchestra version on February 4, 2015.  He’s a pro, and it shows here!

Bonus: the composer and percussionist Evelyn Glennie discuss the piece, with some performance and rehearsal footage:

To learn more about the concerto itself, visit the Schott page, read the LA Philharmonic’s program notes, read Shawn Michael Hart’s dissertation about it, or see what the Boston Conservatory has to say.  Joseph Schwantner has a biography on Wikipedia and his own website.

Born in Russia, Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was on track to become a lawyer until he began composition studies with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.  He started his career in Paris with three ballets written for choreographer Sergei Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes: The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring, the last of which is legendary for causing a riot at its premiere.   The Rite especially was a model of neo-primitivism, in which Stravinsky used very small cells of notes to create orchestral textures that often featured intense, driving rhythms.  In the 1920s he largely abandoned his primitivist tendencies and began writing consciously Neoclassical music, which at first baffled his contemporaries, although not as much as his turn to serialism in the 1950s.  Still, his music remained popular, and he was consistently seen as a bold and hugely influential composer, perhaps one of the most important of the 20th century.  His reputation endures today, with hundreds if not thousands of performances of his works happening every year.  He died an American citizen, having moved to California in 1939.

It was from this perch in sunny Hollywood that Stravinsky wrote his Ebony Concerto in 1945.  In it, he distilled American jazz through his own compositional lens.  The score (untouched since its first edition in 1946) has this to say about its origin and inspiration:

Ebony Concerto was written by Igor Stravinsky for Woody Herman and his Orchestra.  It was introduced by that orchestra in a memorable concerto at Carnegie Hall, New York, on March 25, 1946, to the acclaim of public and critics alike.

Igor Stravinsky is one of the greatest and most representative figures in modern-day music.  His music has shocked, delighted, amazed, and irritated, but never bored people.  Stravinsky’s revolutionary musical precepts, his constant search for the new, for the true mirror of our changing world, find expression in music that is based on sound musicianship and great genius.  That is why his Firebird SuiteRite of Spring, and Petrouchka, to name only a few of his major works, are modern classics.

That is why Stravinsky was so impressed by the Woody Herman Orchestra and by their recordings of Bijou, Goosey Gander, and Caldonia.  His creativeness, invention, and deep sense of the modern, matched the characteristics of the Herman Orchestra.  A few months after Stravinsky had met Woody Herman, he presented the popular bandleader with Ebony Concerto… a composition that marks an epochal collaboration between the “jazz” and the “modern” schools of thought.

In truth, this origin story is somewhat romanticized.  Another account (see the Chicago Tribune link below) has it that a member of Herman’s band boasted of a meeting with Stravinsky which never actually happened, leading their mutual publisher to arrange the commission for the cash-strapped composer.  Regardless, Stravinsky did possess enough affinity for jazz that he did not hesitate in completing the project.

Listen to the original recording, and notice the delicious clash of styles happening:

Now listen to another recording that Stravinsky conducted, this time with Benny Goodman as the soloist:

The astute listener in possession of a score will have noticed that in both recordings, Stravinsky does not take his own printed tempos.  The interpretations on these recordings have now become standard.

The tunes mentioned in the program notes give great context to what inspired Stravinsky.  Here is Bijou:

And here is Caldonia:

For further reading on the Ebony Concerto, visit the Center for Jazz Arts, the Chicago Tribune, New York City Ballet, and Boosey & Hawkes.  Get a partial look at the score here.

Stravinsky has biographies on Wikipedia, IMDb, and Boosey & Hawkes, as well as a Foundation in his name with an Internet presence.  So much has been written about him in print that the Internet hardly does him justice.  But here are some articles from humanitiesweb and Cal Tech (on his religious works), and some quotes from him, just to whet your appetite.

Steven Bryant (b. 1972) is an acclaimed, award-winning composer whose works often straddle different media.  He is a three-time recipient of the National Band Association’s William D. Revelli Composition Award (2007, 2008, 2010). His first orchestral work, Loose Id for Orchestra, was “orchestrated like a virtuoso” according to celebrated composer Samuel Adler.  His epic work for wind band and electronics, Ecstatic Waters, has received more performances than any other piece of its kind.  His other work includes pieces for wind band (some with added electronics), orchestra, chamber ensembles, and electronic music.  He studied composition at The Juilliard School with John Corigliano, at the University of North Texas with Cindy McTee, and at Ouachita University with W. Francis McBeth.

Concerto for Wind Ensemble is a virtuosic showpiece for winds: each player is a soloist with a completely independent part.  Bryant has extensively documented his inspiration and his compositional process on his website.  First, his program note:

My Concerto for Wind Ensemble came into existence in two stages, separated by three years. The first movement came about in 2006, when Commander Donald Schofield (then director of the USAF Band of Mid-America) requested a new work that would showcase the band’s considerable skill and viscerally demonstrate their commitment to excellence as representatives of the United States Air Force. From the outset, I decided against an outright depiction of flight, instead opting to create a work that requires, and celebrates, virtuosity. Initial discussions with Cdr. Schofield centered on a concerto grosso concept, and from this, the idea evolved into one of surrounding the audience with three groups of players, as if the concertino group had expanded to encompass the audience. These three antiphonal groups, along with the onstage ensemble, form the shape of a diamond, which, not coincidentally, is a core formation for the USAF Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron. As a further analog, I’ve placed Trumpet 5 and Clarinet 5 in the back of the hall, serving as an ‘inversion’ of the ensemble onstage, which mirrors the role of the No. 5 pilot who spends the majority of the show flying inverted. The musical material consists of a five-note ascending scale-wise motive and a repeated chord progression (first introduced in the Vibraphone about 2’30” into the work). The rhythm of this chord progression (inspired by a Radiohead song) informs the rhythmic makeup of the remainder of the movement.

As the piece took shape, I realized I wanted to write much more than the “five to seven minutes” specified in the original commission, so I intentionally left the end of the work “open,” knowing I would someday expand it when the opportunity presented itself. That chance came in 2009, thanks to Jerry Junkin: shortly after his fantastic 2009 performance of Ecstatic Waters at the College Band Directors National Association conference in Austin, we discussed my desire to write more movements, and he graciously agreed to lead a consortium to commission the project.

In expanding the work, I planned to reuse the same few musical elements across all five movements. Economy of materials is a guiding principle of my approach to composing, and I set out to tie this work together as tightly as possible. The original ascending five-note motive from movement I returns often (in fact, the number 5 insinuates itself into both the melodic and rhythmic fabric of the entire work).

In Movement II, this scalar passage is stretched vertically, so that its total interval now covers a minor seventh instead of a perfect fifth. The F# Phrygian harmony eventually resolves upward to G major, acting as five-minute expansion of the F#-G trills introduced in the Clarinets at the beginning of Movement I. The second movement exploits the antiphonal instruments for formal purposes, as the music gradually moves from the stage to the surrounding instruments. Extended flute solos permeate the movement.

Movement III is bright, rhythmically incessant, and veers toward jazz in a manner that surprised me as it unfolded. The accompaniment patterns revisit the Vibraphone rhythm from movement I, which various scalar threads swirl around the ensemble. The melodic material for this movement comes from a trumpet solo my father played years ago, and which I transcribed in 2006, while composing the first movement. I knew from the beginning that this would end up in the work, though my original plan was to set it in toto in the fourth movement. Instead, it wound up in the much brighter third movement, and led the music into a completely unexpected direction.

Movement IV’s weighty character, then, comes from that initial plan to set my father’s solo, however, I realized it wasn’t going to sound as I had anticipated – I had envisioned something similar to IvesThe Unanswered Question, but it simply wasn’t working. Once I let go of the solo and focused on the surrounding sonic landscape, the music formed quickly, recalling various fragments from earlier in the piece. The movement also pays homage to Webern‘s Six Pieces for Orchestra (elements of which appear in other movements), and Corigliano‘s score to the film Altered States. Both of these have been early, powerful, lasting influences on my compositional choices.

Movement V returns to the opening motive of the entire work, this time with a simmering vitality that burns inexorably to a no-holds-barred climax. Where the first four movements of the work only occasionally coalesce into tutti ensemble passages, here, the entire band is finally unleashed.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Jerry Junkin and the consortium members for allowing me the opportunity to create this work – all 54,210 notes of it.

Concerto for Wind Ensemble is a true one-on-a-part wind ensemble work. Exact instrumentation is listed here.

Read more about Concerto for Wind Ensemble, including a look at the score, at Steven Bryant’s website and his blog.  Read up on Bryant himself at Wikipedia.

Here is the piece in performance by the University of Texas and Jerry Junkin:

Bryant also kept a video diary from the composition process:

He talks about several influences in his program notes.  The Radiohead song he refers to is Pyramid Songwhich is based on a symmetrical but uneven rhythm:

Movement IV references both Anton Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra:

And Bryant’s teacher John Corigliano’s Altered States:

Bryant likes and is comfortable in electronic media.  He has a YouTube account, a Twitter handle, and a Facebook fan page.  He has a fantastic website with a blog attached.  He also numbers the revisions of his music like computer software: for instance, his latest version of Dusk is version 1.4.  In his words, “The old version (1.2) is NOT compatible” with the new.  He also writes dedicated electronic music.  My favorite, which I heard when I sat in at his session at the Ball State University Conducting Workshop in 2012, is called Hummingbrrd.  Click the link to listen, and prepare to be amazed!

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. 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.

Mackey wrote Harvest: Concerto for Trombone in 2009.  It was commissioned by a consortium of bands organized by Chris Wilhjelm of the Ridgewood Concert Band and LTC Timothy Holtan of the West Point Military Academy and their famous band.  It was written as a feature for Joseph Alessi, principal trombonist of the New York Philharmonic, and premiered by the West Point Band in March, 2010.  Mackey provides his own program notes:

Harvest: Concerto for Trombone is based on the myths and mystery rituals of the Greek god Dionysus. As the Olympian god of the vine, Dionysus is famous for inspiring ecstasy and creativity. But this agricultural, earth-walking god was also subjected each year to a cycle of agonizing death before glorious rebirth, analogous to the harsh pruning and long winter the vines endure before blooming again in the spring. The concerto’s movements attempt to represent this dual nature and the cycle of suffering and return.

The concerto is set in three connected sections, totaling approximately 18 minutes. The first section begins with a slow introduction, heavy on ritualistic percussion, representing the summoning of Dionysus’s worshippers to the ceremony. The rite itself builds in intensity, with Dionysus (represented, of course, by the solo trombone) engaging in call and response with his followers, some of whom are driven to an ecstatic outcry — almost a “speaking in tongues” –represented by insistent woodwind trills. But when Dionysus transitions to a gentler tone, his frenzied worshippers do not follow. Their fervor overcomes them, and they tear their god to shreds in an act of ritual madness.

This brutal sacrifice by the ecstatic worshippers — the pruning of the vine — is followed without pause by the second section, representing Dionysus in the stillness of death, or winter. The god is distant, the music like a prayer.

The shoots of spring burst forth in the final section, following again without pause. The earth is reborn as Dionysus rises again, bringing the ecstasy and liberation that have been celebrated in his name for centuries.

Harvest: Concerto for Trombone is dedicated to Joseph Alessi.

Mackey scored Harvest for orchestral winds (sorry, saxes), brass (sorry, euphists), and percussion plus harp, piano, and string bass.  While it has been widely played by America’s top wind ensembles, its orchestra-friendly instrumentation has seen it played beyond the wind band sphere in such places as the Cabrillo Festival (which described it as “scored for solo trombone and orchestra without strings”), where legendary maestra Marin Alsop conducted.

You can look at the score and hear a recording of the piece at Mackey’s website.  You can also read about the piece at the Wind Repertory Project.  Mackey also talks in some detail about the piece on his very candid blog, including features on the original concept for the concerto, working with Joe Alessi, and the premiere.

Those who are averse to clicking a link can hear Harvest via YouTube here, as performed by Alessi and the West Point Band:

The rest of the commissioning consortium includes:

The Ridgewood Concert Band, The West Point Military Academy Band, University of Texas at Austin, United States Air Force Academy, Illinois State University, University of Florida, Miami University, University of Georgia, Texas Tech University, Case Western Reserve University, Ithaca College, University of South Carolina, University of Washington, Roxbury High School, University of South Florida, Florida State University, Baylor University, Syracuse University, McNeese State University, Arizona State University, University of Alabama.

I first came  across Piazzolla’s music in 2001, while working for the Little Orchestra Society of New York.  The conductor, Dino Anagnost, had heard Gidon Kremer‘s version of Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires (Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas) for string orchestra and violin solo, and wanted to perform it.  There was no published version of it, just the arranger’s manuscript.  So, as the “music assistant” I got to sit at the Maestro’s computer for several weeks, creating the set of parts in Sibelius.  What could have been endless tedium was instead a revelation: I got inside every note of the piece and came away with an intimate knowledge of Piazzolla’s musical language.  He was romantic.  He was lyrical.  He would hover on astonishing dissonances, preserving them like the surface of smoothly rippling water.  He had a gift for counterpoint far beyond what I was expecting of a tango master.  This initial contact led me to study up on the man and his music.  Finally, in 2005, I arranged two of his tangos, Milonga del Angel and La Muerte del Angel, into a two-movement concerto for flute and band.  It premiered in 2006, with Leonardo Hiertz as the soloist.  And now, in 2012, we get to do it again!

Some background: Astor Pantaleón Piazzolla is widely regarded as the most influential tango artist of the 20th century.  His work borrows elements from tango, jazz, and classical music to form a new genre called  nuevo tango.  He was a virtuoso performer and a respected composer whose work is widely performed around the world.  He was born in Mar del Plata, Argentina on March 11, 1921, to Italian immigrant parents.  When he was 4 years old, they moved to Greenwich Village in New York City.  He picked up the bandoneón, the accordion-like instrument that would dominate his musical career, at age 8.  He heard a wealth of different kinds of music from an early age: his father brought Argentine tango records to New York; he heard jazz on the streets of the city; and by age 12, he was learning to play Bach on his bandoneón.  He returned to Argentina at 16, and moved to Buenos Aires the following year to try his luck on the tango scene there.  He found some success, but realized that his interests leaned more towards contemporary classical composers like Bartok and Stravinsky.  To that end, he studied composition with Alberto Ginastera and nearly dropped all tango activities.  Finally, in 1954 he left for Paris to study with the legendary composition teacher Nadia Boulanger.  She encouraged him to embrace his tango heritage.  He returned to Argentina inspired to elevate the tango to an artistic level.  He wrote original compositions for traditional ensembles, as well as for his own groups which ranged in size from quintets to nonets.  He toured the world with his music, and changed the tango forever.

Regarding the tangos in the arrangement, they both originated as incidental music for a play in 1962.  They eventually became part of a five-part series of “Angel” tangos, completed in 1965.  James Reel of allmusic.com neatly describes Milonga del Angel:

For Alberto Rodriguez Muñoz’s 1962 stage play Tango del Angel, in which an angel heals the spirits of the residents of a shabby Buenos Aires neighborhood, Piazzolla added two new pieces to an earlier tango that gave the play its name. This music reappeared in at least two different concert forms, but one of the unifying elements is the piece Milonga del ángel. A milonga is a sort of proto-tango, lighter and gentler than the more familiar form. This milonga is openly sentimental and begins with a lounge music feel with strummed bass chords; a simple, keening violin line; and a few tinkles from the piano. The bandoneón creeps in almost unnoticed, but takes control of the piece with a sad, nostalgic melody (at this point, one could easily imagine the piece being played in a jazz club). Just as the treatment of the melody becomes more complex and emotional, a secondary section arrives to allow some air around the music. It initially seems like a transition, but opens into a highly romantic and sensual violin solo. The bandoneón reclaims its place, offering its own variation on this melody, which is actually closely tied to the main theme, and musing on it with the violin and electric bass. A more intense passage leads to the coda, which strips the music down to a series of chords, much as the piece began.

Le Muerte del Angel comes from the same play.  It is notable for its opening fugue and its brisk tempo.

Here is the master himself performing Milonga del Angel on the BBC:

He and his quintet (similar to the group above) do La Muerte del Angel.  Wind players, watch the way he breathes with the bandoneón.

Now the copious links begin.  Piazzolla remains very popular as a composer, so there is much written about him on the internet.

Piazzolla info at wikipedia, his YouTube page (HIGHLY recommended!), todotango, IMDb, NPR, and allmusic.  Sadly, his foundation’s website, piazzolla.org, is about 10 years out of date.

Find out more about Milonga del Angel at allmusic (quoted above), jazz.com, the Fugata Quintet, and Albert Combrink’s Blog.  Also, go to this blog to see a video of a sword-swallowing routine done to this piece!

See more about La Muerte del Angel at Albert Combrink’s Blog, answers.com, and Piazzolla on Video (as a tribute to Piazzolla’s longtime pianist, Pablo Ziegler).