Concert Review: Symphony Band

Band concerts are experiences utterly unlike other genres of classical music. At chamber recitals or orchestral concerts, one mostly expects to hear quality music penned in the 19th or early 20th centuries. There are occasional ventures into the 1960s and beyond, but they are rare. The symphonic wind band however, being mostly a phenomenon of this country and century, does not have the luxury of a large body of historic repertoire to fill their programs. It’s true that transcriptions from the orchestral repertoire are common, but at a band concert the rule is: anything goes. One should expect to hear anything from marches, to educational music, new concerti, vocal music, and anything from that huge array of styles which make up contemporary music. So band concerts are potpourris of sorts, and the substance tends to be of varying quality. But at tonight’s Symphony Band concert, the quality was high. Very high.

The program began with Kah! (Out of Darkness), a work by Dana Wilson. The primary effect of the piece was brought about by the composer’s use of antiphonal devices--echoes--between the musicians on stage and two smaller groups of musicians on either side of the audience. With Mr. Wilson’s subtle handling of color, as well as his ability to shape a piece in long form, the piece came off well. Some of the solos were shaky but the work was difficult and overall very well played. This listener grew tired of the faux-jazz ostinato that unvaryingly drove the piece, but both ensemble and audience took to the the work with enthusiasm.

Thomas Bourgault’s To Let the World Spin On... was next on the program. It opened with a Clarinet solo adeptly dispatched by Abinay Tirupati. On first listen it’s clear that Mr. Bourgalt posesses a rare, strong command of harmony and counterpoint. But the piece as a whole, as the name might imply, may have taken itself a bit too seriously. Mr. Bourgault seems to have a natural flair for drama in music, but unfortunately the piece fell into the pitfall of a bad theme and variation; too much theme, not enough variation. Regardless, I look forward to hearing Mr. Bourgault’s next work. Again the ensemble performed admirably.

Claude Debussy’s Engulfed Cathedral was next up, in transcription by Merlin Patterson. And oh my, what a beautiful transcription. Mr. Patterson was not only faithful to the piano score, but augmented the pathos of the eery original. The sound of low sustained chords were rendered here in a splendidly dark, low reed color, dashed with harp. The closing chorale in the Euphoniums was haunting. Marvelously played.

Intermission. The Rutgers Symphonic Band is a marvelous and unique sound. Comprised of over 70 musicians, there is a dizzying array of color in instruments not typically found in the orchestra; Contrabass Clarinets, the gamut of Saxophones, E-flat Clarinets, and Euphoniums. Yet for the wide range of available color, the strength of this ensemble is not in the brilliance of its palate. In fact, solo passages or tight contrapuntal work that requires light scoring often comes off awkward and insecure. The strength of this ensemble, like a pipe organ, is in its blend of many colors. The raw sound of the ensemble is surprisingly resonant, and very thick (over 80 wind players). Composers whose music takes advantage of these qualities tend to fare well in performance. The conductor helps. Darryl Bott, who leads from the podium, has a temperament perfectly suited to this ensemble. His ability to coax a seamless, blended sound from a group so seemingly unwieldy is extraordinary. Additionally Mr. Bott has a careful ear for the resonance of our beloved Nicolas Hall. His tempi are always very carefully chosen to match not only the music, but also the space of the hall, and the particular sound qualities of the ensemble. Such crafted ability, the privilege of many years experience and hard work, I suspect is seldom appreciated in full. As a listener, I hope to see Mr. Bott remain at the helm of this group for many years to come.

The second half of the program was made up of two war horses in the Symphonic Band Rep: Clifton William’s 1956 Fanfare and Allegro and Vittorio Giannini’s Symphony No. 3 from 1985. Fanfare and Allegro is classic band music very much of a time and place in American history. The style is reminiscent of a 1950’s film score. It has abrupt whole-tone modulations, modal fanfares, and melodies with clear and contrasting characters. Classic. There are rhythmic ostanati, and snare and bass drums thunder throughout. The material may not be fully coherent, but it is fun and exciting. Who needs abstract unity when we can have crashes, thunders, the excitement of a driving musical pulse? This music was practically written for the symphony band. The group played this piece with ease, enthusiasm, and the utmost musicality. The percussion section was very well balanced with the group.

If Fanfare and Allegro is of a time and place, by contrast, Giannini’s Symphony No. 3, which enjoys an equally elevated position in the repertoire, is of no time, and no place. Despite being written in America in 1985, Giannini’s language is staunchly, rigorously, conservative. By conservative I mean triads, harmonic progressions, sonata form, symmetrical phrasing, and Italian tempo markings. That kind of conservative. Hearing the work through first thirty seconds it seems kistch, stuffy, and light bordering on simple. The opening theme from the first movement is unabashedly tonal, and the presentation is over triads sputtering ahead in stacatto (short) eighth notes. All the tells of bad band music. But as the work moves on, surprises pile up quickly. Textures change in unexpected ways. Themes become subject to inventive treatment through re-harmonization and motivic expansion. The orchestration is subtle...and my God, there is expression through form!

And now if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to place my finger Giannini’s style: he is a composer of restraint, one who hides his voice behind many masks of conservative style. An example. In the first two movements, there are uncharacteristic moments of incredible dissonance. These moments are masterfully worked into, carefully prepared. They occur in the Trumpets near the close of development section of the first movement, and also in the contrapuntal opening of the second movement. They contrast the sunny surface of this music with something dark, enigmatic, inexplicable. Yet when the dissonance bubbles up to the surface, it passes as quickly as it arrives. It’s beautiful, but unsatisfying. To me there seems a willful denial on the composer’s part to deal with the dark stuff. Here I ask, Why? One is left to guess: Does Giannini leave so much on the table because of restraint of the style he’s chose to work in? Or perhaps he lacks ability to handle the complexities of working in a chromatic world. Either is possible. So I’m left with this to say: While style should never be a limit to an artistic composer, I at least admire the discipline of restraint shown in Gianinni’s music. Restraint is a rare quality among contemporary composers. Myself included. Anyway, the group played the symphony well, and applause was genuine after the fourth movement’s pyrotechnic close.

At the end I felt the program was well balanced. It was capped off with a mirror of Dana Wilson’s work. “Strange Humors” by John Mackey, darling composer of the band world, was a ostinato driven, high-energy piece that featured Carlos Vasquez on some kind of Djembe-like drum. Mr. Vasquez played very musically and had a great groove, which Mr. Bott and the ensemble responded to with splendid effect.

Of course, there was a standing ovation. Thank you all for the enjoyable concert.


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