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CBDNA 2005 Conference

New York - A Wind Band Celebration

Tim Reynish 31st March 2005

CBDNA President Gary Hill's visionary initiative of moving the CBDNA conference to New York was completely justified. With five of the top college ensembles of the world playing marvellously to large audiences in Carnegie Hall, and some terrific music in the other programmes, this was a feast of wind music. However, the professional world hardly noticed us, just short previews of the Carnegie Hall concerts and a mention of University of Texas at Austin and the new Corigliano Symphony. Unfortunately the promised link with the New York Philharmonic and Lorin Maazel was to be the opening discussion, disgracefully cancelled by the maestro at twenty four hours notice; furthermore a new work by Danielpour was curtailed, there were no New York groups or soloists, few composers, and the Roundtable of Critics talked about the Future but did not write about the Present. However, there was strong support from members, some imaginative programming and almost invariably excellent performances.

I came away looking forward to conducting again the recent works by Magnus Lindberg, Christopher Marshall and David Del Tredici, relishing the Concertino of Karel Husa, and excited about several other pieces, including the massive Corigliano, which needs a huge auditorium and an expert ensemble. Other new works I would like to investigate and probably programme if I had my own ensemble are:

Composer Work Ensemble Contact
Bodine, G Bradley Concerto for Marimba Texas A&M Brad Kent
Botti, Susan Cosmosis University of Michigan Michael Haithcock
Danielpour, Richard Voice of the City Ithaca College Steve Peterson
Grantham, Donald Baron Ciementiere's Mambo University of Texas Jerry Junkin
Haber, Yotam Espresso Rutgers Wind Ensemble William Berz
Mackey, John Redline Tango Ithaca College Steve Peterson
Newman, Jonathan The Rivers of Bowery Rutgers Wind Ensemble William Berz
Sheng, Bright LA'I (Love Song for Orchestra without strings) University of Michigan Michael Haithcock
Zappa, arr J Gershman G- Spot Tornado Texas A&M Brad Kent

The Gates

New York is certainly the ultimate place for a series of concerts, though not perhaps a conference. It is a long time since I experienced the quirky good humour of the New Yorkers, the myriad of fine eating places, the excitement of the artistic life, the splendour of the architecture, the beauty of Central Park, adorned perhaps especially for us by The Gates by Christo, hundreds of enormous flaps of orange material running over all of the walks. I am not sure whether it is art, but at a cost of 18 million dollars it gave us something to talk about and looked very pretty against the snow. The great thing about New York, Chicago and San Francisco is that they are cities for people to live in, and the tourist or visitor gets caught up in the exuberance of that city life.

The Met, Phil, Frick & Guggenheim

I was able to enjoy many of the major venues, starting at the Metropolitan Opera with a strong Madama Butterfly, directed by an histrionic conductor whose gestures might be better suited to a 400 strong marching band, but who was apparently ignored by the experienced, silky-toned, marvelously balanced and perfectly groomed Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

On the second evening, many of us went to hear Lorin Maazel with the New York Philharmonic. Dukas' L'Apprenti Sorcier opened the concert and while the orchestra is wonderful, details disappointed. Perhaps the maestro's cavalier curtailment of a public morning rehearsal led to some sloppy playing; articulation of little notes was weak, balance certainly favoured the brass, and Mickey Mouse never distorted the music the way that Maazel does, with huge and totally un-necessary changes of tempi. He has an extraordinary virtuoso technique and control which he shows off, in my opinion, through the most unmusical rubato.

The new oboe concerto by Australian Ross Edwards was outstanding, not least for the playing, dancing and mime of soloist and dedicatee, Diana Doherty; it is still great to hear the NYP at Lincoln Centre, but a recent press discussion of the greatest orchestras in the world should on this showing have left the Phil out of the count and put in the Met.

Very Enjoyable - But Is It Art?

Visits to the Frick Collection and the Guggenheim were, as always, immensely enjoyable, but although the conference was fascinating, with some great playing on a par with the Met and the Phil, only rarely did concerts provide a satisfactory artistic experience.

Warren Benson once wrote memorably in a WASBE Journal:

...I wish I could hear more wind conductors and instrumental teachers using better and larger vocabularies that relate to beauty, aesthetics, to charm, to gentleness, strength and power without rancour or anger, to useful tonal vibrancy, live sound, to grace of movement, to stillness, to fervour, to the depth of great age the exultation of great happiness, the feel of millennia, the sweetness and purity of lullabies, the precision of fine watches, the reach into time-space of great love and respect, the care of phrasing, the delicacy of balance, the ease of warmth, the resonance of history, the susurrus of wind in the pines and whisperings in churches, the intimacy of the solo instrument, the kind weight of togetherness and the rising spirit of creating something, bringing something to life from cold print, living music, moving music.

Poor Acoustics

This was an article of sheer poetry, a commodity lacking in most of the concerts. Sometimes this was due to atrocious acoustics, fairly dead for Texas A & M and Rutgers, completely dead for Louisville and Ithaca. It was difficult for all four groups to make a beautiful sound, and yet their concerts for me included some of the more interesting music.

Texas A& M

left me frustrated at not hearing the whole work, and the arrangement of Zappa's G-Spot Tornado is a great virtuoso showpiece.

There were two memorable works from the WASBE 2003 Conference, five movements from Patrick Dunnigan's brilliantly outrageous reconstruction of The Danserye by Susato, here lacking the finesse of phrasing that Pat and FSU brought to Sweden, and In Wartime by David Del Tredici. I enjoy this more each time I hear it. OK, so it is repetitive, war on the ground is surely grindingly that, Beethoven 5 is too. The little fantasia theme which he weaves around Abide with Me and the trumpet ballad of the second half are on the face of it banal, but the opening gestures of so many symphonies of Haydn and Mozart are typical classical clichés - what is fascinating to me is how skillfully he, and they, treat apparently mundane material.

There is an architecture and tension built here which I find totally convincing, and which is lacking in dozens of other wind band works based on hymn tunes or pop ballads. Here, for me is a master composer treating our medium with dignity. The little Chorale Prelude on Abide with Me, and the popular idiom of the tune of the second movement make it easy listening, but Del Tredici is a master at making such obvious material turn into what I for one find a moving and evocative experience.

Rutgers Wind Ensemble

William Berz and his group are very experienced in contemporary scores, but they could not sell me Wuorinen's Windfall which I found to be aggressive and inconsequential, for me little more than a random series of motifs hurled at us, but I was intrigued by two new works. Jonathan Newman's The Rivers of Bowery moved with a sure feel for tension and contrast and left me wanting another movement, while Yotam Haber, the winner of the ASCAP/CBDNA Frederick Fennell Prized also left me wanting to see a score of Espresso and hear more music by this composer. The opening was an imaginative babble of orchestral colour a little reminiscent of Petrouchka, and was followed by a sequence of great ideas, not always connecting convincingly but invariably interesting.

University Of Louisville

The University of Louisville under the musical direction of Frederick Speck put together a fascinating programme, starting with Lutoslawski's brilliant Fanfare for Louisville which preceded three substantial pieces by Turrin, Grantham and Christopher Marshall. Marshall's L'Homme Armé was the third work of this Conference which we had heard at WASBE Sweden; based loosely on the Dvorak Symphonic Variations, it impresses me more and more with its mix of mediaeval and modern idioms. I have never heard the infamous join into J2 for the final variation so cleanly handled as in this performance. Turrin's trumpet concerto Chronicles was one of five well-crafted concertos heard through the week, and the programme ended with an idiomatic reading of the dependable Donald Grantham's Fantasy Variations.

New York, New York

The Ithaca College programme, conducted by Stephen Peterson, was very clever, based on Music of New York Composers and Arrangers, something old and something new. I confess not to know Morton Gould's Santa Fe Saga which I enjoyed more than a lot of Americana, and it was wonderful to be reminded of Karel Husa's Concertino for Piano and Wind Ensemble, with its reminiscences of Bartok but very strong personality. Redline Tango by John Mackey was the recent winner of the Walter Beeler Award and will be heard in Singapore this summer; good fun, brilliantly played, this is a tough piece which the best bands will want to test their conductor on.

The disappointment here for me was in the CBDNA Commission, Voices of the City by Richard Danielpour. I remember hearing a marvelously lyrical sensuous piece which he wrote for Jaime Laredo and his cellist wife. The next day I dived excitedly into the internet surf to track him down, only to find that CBDNA had already commissioned a work for this conference. In the event, only one movement was forthcoming, the first of a pair, one fast and loud which we heard, the second.....? I am left in suspense and hope to programme the whole work next year at Ithaca.

Ethnic Roots

In general it was the shorter works which caught my attention, and many of these sprang from a strong ethnic background. Grantham in his Baron Ciementiere's Mambo, Mackey in prizewinning Red Tango, and Roberto Sierra with his Fandangos turned to Spanish and Portuguese idioms of South America, generously larded with bitonality and mixed metres.

Five Concertos

There were several substantial concertos played at Conference, which might add weight to any programme and serve to feature a fine soloist or soloists. Eric Ewazen's Shadowcatcher featured the American Brass Quintet, and would be useful if you wanted a work with horn and two each of trumpets and trombones as soloist. Joseph Turrin's Chronicles was written for Philip Smith, the New York Philharmonic and Kurt Masur, played here with aplomb by Susan Rider of the US Marines. Mark Kellogg and Eastman gave an assured account in the world premiere of the Concerto for Trombone and Wind Ensemble by Jeff Tyzik and Michael Daugherty showed a new lyricism in the world premiere of his Brooklyn Bridge for Clarinet and Symphony Band, wonderfully played by Michael Wayne. The outstanding concerto for me was the oldest; Karel Husa's Concertino for Piano and Wind Ensemble I found memorable, full of personality, engaging my interest throughout another fine performance from Ithaca College.

Composer Work Instrument/s Ensemble Contact
Daugherty, Michael Brooklyn Bridge Clarinet University/Michigan Michael Haithcock
Ewazen, Eric Shadowcatcher Brass 5tet Rutgers Wind William Berz
Husa, Karel Concertino Piano Ithaca College Stephen Peterson
Turrin, Joseph Chronicles Trumpet Louisville Wind Louisville
Tyzik, Jeff Concerto Trombone Eastman Wind Rochester

Lincoln Centre Alice Tulley Recital Hall

It was a great pity that two of the least satisfying programmes took place in this splendid acoustic. The programme of the Goldman Band was traditional, Sousa, Offenbach, Tchaikovsky, Grainger, Rossini and Goldman's On the Mall, with the world premiere of Festival March by Michael Valenti and one Goldman commission , Peter Mennin's Canzona of 1951, which I find to be rather academic note-spinning. I kept wondering which composers Goldman might have commissioned for new light pieces for this concert. As a guide to community and professional bands on programming for the 21st century, this programme was an unhelpful dinosaur, and despite persuasive conducting from Chris Wijhelm and some fine solo contributions, discrepancies in ensemble and intonation confirmed traditional fears about military bands.

Small College Intercollegiate Band

Bach Fantasia in G major
Lennon & MaCartney Blackbird arranged Shelly Berg
Shostakovich Finale of Symphony no 5

Brilliantly and persuasively conducted as it was by the enormously experienced Larry Livingstone, I just could not understand the raison d'être of this programme. Small colleges usually are unable to tackle large-scale works, and here were over 70 students playing two transcriptions and a premiere which focussed on the Beatles, the arranger/composer Shelley Berg and his Trio and left many of them tacet for huge periods - an expensive lesson in jazz improvisation, if you have paid your way to New York from California or Florida.

The message was clear, there is little original music worth playing so lets do transcriptions. It was interesting to receive recently the 2004 WASBE Journal with a chapter by Mark Reimer on repertoire for Honors Bands. I especially relished the quotations from Frank Battisti:

Much music studied by school bands is of limited musical value. We should raise the taste of the conductor

and his quotation from Boulez:

I believe in music that is demanding, that goes into depth of the human being, not music for entertainment.
All too rarely did this conference touch at all the problems of the programmes of high schools or small colleges, all too often the message of this conference, as outlined in the opening discussion, was that we need to get bums on seats through entertainment; so beware contemporary music.

This concert was followed somewhat ironically by a discussion on The Future of Concert Music by a Roundtable of Music Critics. I left, since I did not want to hear more advocacy for more dumbing down as the panacea to all our problems but maybe they had all the answers. I hope someone else reports.

Carnegie Hall & New England

We were fortunate to hear several of the top groups in the world playing in Carnegie Hall.

New England Conservatory opened this mini-series with four delicious undirected movements fromCosi fan Tutte arranged by Wendt, beautifully phrased with a freedom lacking in so many other performances. I could not make much of Richard Toensing's The Whitman Tropes for soprano and ensemble, conducted authoritatively by William Drury, but the work I really enjoyed was Magnus Lindberg's Gran Duo, a superbly balanced performance under Charles Peltz. Speed relationships and scoring are similar to those of Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments, and I actually find the Lindberg more interesting and attractive as a work, a better piece for making audience contact and a great challenge to all of the soloists in a wind ensemble.

It is not an easy listen for the first time, and perhaps this, and other works, would have benefited by an introductory rehearsal or discussion. My advice is to purchase a recording; later this year there should be three on the market, one from Ondine, one from the President's Own and one from University of Kentucky. Others will follow, I am certain, since this, in my view, is a masterpiece of wind ensemble writing.

Michigan Symphony Band

The University of Michigan Symphony Band (the only university "band", all of the others were "ensembles", albeit often very big ones) under the very expert Michael Haithcock gave an idiosyncratic performance of that great classic, Lincolnshire Posy, fluently conducted and brilliantly played, providing a number of talking points. The Band is excellent, Haithcock has fine-tuned it so that balance and ensemble are exemplary, and he like Maazel has complete control. His performance of Grainger was straightforward in its observance of dynamics, with nothing original in the way of phrasing, but by choosing virtuoso speeds, there was not always enough time for clarity of texture to tell. It was good for our preconceived notions of interpretation to be challenged, but occasionally what seemed strange pull-ups and allargandos, (perhaps of the school of Lorin Maazel) might have been considered perverse.

I especially loved the canons in Rufford Park Poachers, but not the two big gaps which intruded. The Brisk Young Sailor was brisk indeed, and I am not at all sure that his True Love would have ever caught up with him before he dashed into Nagasaki and found another, way before robins nested, certainly scarcely time for the syncopations to make their mark, nor the canons to be played with any personality. Details fascinated me. Sections marked freely were often almost in strict tempo, the end of the Brisk Young Sailor I am sure is marked in strict tempo, here we had a massive Maazellian ralentando. Their other classic celebration was of Chester by William Schuman a work which like the Mennin and Copland's Emblems just leaves me cold, even in this fine performance.

Their opening work was by Bright Sheng, who turned to his teenage life in Tibet for the inspiration for LA'I (love Song for Orchestra without Strings). Striking open gestures, wild free canonic writing between horns and trombones, were interspersed by cries from wind, perhaps a little reminiscent of the elemental wildness of pieces by Varese. A more lyrical section followed, before a brief return to the intensity of the opening; this was a piece that left me again wanting more, perhaps a contrasting slow movement, very exciting, albeit too short at just over 4 minutes.

For many, the highlight of the Conference was Susan Botti's work, Cosmosis for Wind Ensemble, Soprano and Women's Voices which inhabited a fascinating world, that of the spider, Arabella, who was the subject of an experiment to see if she could, and I suppose, would, weave a web in space. Based on poems by May Swenson, Susan Botti taps an extraordinary variety of sounds and colours, from the wind and from the choir. She herself was the soloist, and this is certainly an imaginative work which deserves more performances.

University Of Southern California

Saturday night's Carnegie concerts began with University of Southern California under principal conductor H Robert Reynolds, though the first item was expertly conducted by Sharon Lavery, the third movement of Frank Ticheli's Symphony no 2, Apollo Unleashed. We heard the first two movements in the 2003 WASBE Conference, and enjoyable though this third movement is, I still wish he had ended with the moving second movement, maybe a twenty first century Unfinished Symphony. This finale seemed a little flippant by itself, and would perhaps make more sense in context; the second movement showed a welcome "serious" side to Ticheli.

It was good to hear some Schuller again, his Symphony for Brass and Percussion, harsh and uncompromising, beautifully offset by six movements of the Mozart Serenade in Bb. I would never have thought that I would be upset by the omission of a movement, but it meant that the sublimeAdagio could not make its full effect, partially because it did not follow the missing Minuet and Trios, partially because the players here and throughout never were allowed the full freedom of chamber musicians.

I cannot help remembering the flexible rubato of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe at the Edinburgh Festival, un-directed, or Simon Rattle giving the CBSO unbridled, almost perverse, license at a BASBWE Conference; (it was far more controlled when they returned from a South America tour to a BBC Prom). For me, this excellent performance was just a tad too organized and controlled, though Bob Reynolds gave another valuable object lesson in fine, unfussy conducting.

Ewe

Later in the evening Eastman Wind Ensemble with Mark Scatterday always in control, gave a curate's egg of a programme beginning with a Bach chorale Komm, süsser Tod, lovingly and movingly played in memory of Frederick Fennell, and ending with an impressive performance of Music for Prague 1968 of Husa, which still makes an incredible impact. In between were the jokey Fandangos of Robert Sierra, David Maslanka's Tears which I still do not warm to, and the Concerto for Trombone and Wind Ensemble of Jeff Tyzik, three works which I need to get to know more before I can recommend them wholeheartedly.

University Of Texas At Austin

And so to the finale, University of Texas at Austin and the long awaited Symphony no 3 by John Corigliano, Circus Maximus. I first met Jerry Junkin nearly quarter of a century ago in Ann Arbor, when he crammed me into a tiny car with Karel Husa in front, off to a rehearsal of the Michigan second group in Husa's very demanding Trumpet Concerto. His conducting, already formidable, has grown in scope and development, his ensemble at Austin is undoubtedly one of the finest in the world, and his programming becomes more and more interesting. This was a well-planned programme; the theme of celebrating the past was carried through, with great performances of Emblems and Jerry's own edition of Music for the Royal Fireworks, framing another nod at South American dance types, a Mambo by Donald Grantham deftly conducted by Robert Carnochan.

Circus Maximus

My train - yes, there are trains in USA and they are a gentle gracious form of transport without the stress of air travel - was due to leave in mid-concert, but I attended Jerry's morning rehearsal, which convinced me that I had to be there to experience the performance. Corigliano with his experience in film, in opera and concert hall, was a first-rate choice for a major wind work to end the New York conference, and this work lived up to the hype surrounding it. He writes in a programme note:

My first symphony was for large symphony orchestra, my second for string orchestra alone, and this piece is for winds, brass and percussion alone. For the past three decades I have started the compositional process by building a shape, or architecture, before coming up with any musical material. In this case, the shape was influenced by a desire to write a piece in which the entire work is conceived spatially. But I started simply wondering what dramatic premise would justify the encirclement of the audience by musicians, so that they were in the center of an arena. This started my imagination going, and quite suddenly a title appeared in my mind: Circus Maximus.

The Latin words, understandable in English, convey an energy and power by themselves. But the Circus Maximus of ancient Rome was a real place - the largest arena in the world. 300,000 spectators were entertained by chariot races, hunts, and battles. The Roman need for grander and wilder amusement grew as its empire declined.

The parallels between the high decadence of Rome and our present time are obvious. Entertainment dominates our reality, and ever-more-extreme "reality" shows dominate our entertainment. Many of us have become as bemused by the violence and humiliation that flood the 500-plus channels of our television screens as the mobs of imperial Rome, who considered the devouring of human beings by starving lions just another Sunday show. The shape of my Circus Maximus was built both to embody and to comment on this massive and glamorous barbarity. It utilizes a large concert band, and lasts approximately 35 minutes. The work is in eight sections that are played without pause.

Introitus: Martial unison fanfares from the eleven trumpets surrounding the audience break off into weird cries from the on-stage ensemble; also placed around the hall, a saxophone quartet play reflectively, a tiny horn ensemble and others echo the fanfares; as Corigliano writes:

Our need for constant change echoes the desires of the ancient mob, only now we can access it all by pressing a button. Music in this section is constantly interrupted by other music and comes from all sections of the hall.

Like Mahler Seventh Symphony there are Night Music episodes, the one evocative of the tranquility of the forest murmurs, the other reflecting the hidden energy of the darkened city. This breaks into the climax of the work, Circus Maximus. The peak of the work incorporates all the other movements and is a carnival of sonoric activity. A band marching down the aisles counterpoints the onstage performers and the surrounding fanfares. Exuberant voices merge into chaos and a frenzy of overstatement.

The final two sections are more reflective; Prayer is drawn from a series of plagal cadences, and gives way to Coda: Veritas in which the music of the Introitus gradually takes over before the final denouement.

This was a splendid way to end Conference, and those unable to be present will be able to purchase a commercial recording in due course, though how they will encompass the dynamic range and the geography of the "surround music" I cannot imagine. Meanwhile, Jerry Junkin enters his time as President, and we can look forward to the 2007 conference with confidence that CBDNA is at last looking outside the box and making firm contact with composers, if not with critics and players from the world of the music profession. Certainly, the level of performance of these ensembles compares very favourably with the "profession", even if the music is still variable.

In short, the CBDNA 2005 Conference provided consistently great music making, some fascinating major new repertoire, interesting papers and discussions on which I have no space to comment, but proved ultimately frustrating in its lack of contact with the real world of music, and also lack of contact with the world of the High School conductor. In the old days, the Universities provided role models for the best high school ensembles, now the technical demands of the repertoire are considerable, and the CBDNA's charge to lead by example in this area is neglected.

Now the wind ensemble circus maximus moves on to Singapore, and in July we shall see and hear what WASBE can do in this struggle to establish the best repertoire and to take our place in the sun with orchestra, chamber and vocal music. Perhaps it does not matter, but I still feel that the wind ensemble repertoire created since Frederick Fennell's revolution over fifty years ago is one which cannot be ignored for ever.