CBDNA 2007 Conference
March 28 - 31, 2007, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Top Eighteen Works
In his forward to the conference programme, President Jerry Junkin wrote that Michael Haithcock and his colleagues have assembled what will be one of the most exhilarating conferences in recent memory. For once the description on the packet was what we got inside; unusually this was not American hyperbole. There were many works which I would love to recommend but which I am leaving out to concentrate on two per concert. Unfortunately we were rarely given dates for the works, and never publishers, so for more information please contact the band or ensemble.
|Bryant, Stephen||Stampede||Florida International University|
|Colgrass, Michael||Arctic Dreams||Texas Christian University|
|Daugherty, Michael||Raise the Roof (with solo timpani)||University of Michigan|
|Françaix, Jean||Hommage à l'Ami Papageno||Cincinatti Chamber Players|
|Gandolfi, Michael||Vientos y Tangos||Florida International|
|Grantham, Donald||Baron Cimetière's Mambo||Small College Band|
|Gryc, Stephen||Passaggi (with solo trombone)||Hartt School Wind Ensemble|
|Gubaidulina, Sofia||Hour of the Soul||University of Michigan|
|Mackey, John||Redline Tango||Central Michigan|
|Mackey, John||Turning||Texas Christian University|
|Newman, Jonathan||As the Scent of Spring Rain||Florida State University|
|Paulus, Stephen||Concerto for Piano & Winds||Indiana University WE|
|Phan , P.Q.||Race of Gods||Indiana University WE|
|Thomas, Augusta Read||Magneticfireflies||Central Michigan|
|Ticheli, Frank||Symphony no 2||Small College Band|
|Tommasini, Matthew||Three Spanish Songs||Cincinatti Chamber Players|
|Welcher, Dan||Symphony no 4||Florida State University|
|Zivkovic, Nebousa||Tales from the Centre of the Earth (solo percussion)||Hart School Wind Ensemble|
All We Can Do Is To Make Things Better For The Next Generation
It is a little over twenty-four years since I attended my first American music conference, the Michigan Music Educators Conference in Ann Arbor in 1983, and I was welcomed by Bob Reynolds with this philosophy for the future. With hundreds of sessions, clinics, concerts, I was amazed and immediately hooked on conferences and wind bands, a groupie for life. One memorable trip was at 6.am in freezing cold, crammed into a tiny car driven by Jerry Junkin to a rehearsal of the Michigan second band, with Karel Husa in front, off to hear a rehearsal of Karel's virtuoso trumpet concerto. I was quite amazed at the virtuosity of the sololoists, the band and of Jerry. Later back in Manchester we played the concerto with John Wallace as sololoist, and in June I shall premiere a trumpet concerto I have commissioned from Marco Pütz with John Wallace again as soloist, another work in the attempt to make things better. One of our biggest problems is to let people know about such works, our performances significant or otherwise are ignored by the musical press, we often do not write about our own new music, so here are my personal impressions of the programmes.
Packed into three and a half days were nine concerts, twenty three papers, four panel discussions and a video session on marching bands. In the concerts we heard fifty two works of which three were world premieres, three were transcriptions and fourteen were not by American composers. The overall artistic planning of each concert was impressive, with the usual aggressive virtuoso pieces set cheek by jowl with major repertoire works, such as a Krommer Partita, Hammersmith, Dionysiaques, Hindemith's Konzertmusik with organ solo, the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony no 1, and Création du Monde. Thus the Conference was very much about music rather than band, but I thought there were several performance issues which I believe are crucial to our survival and development.
Taming The Decibels
We do have a problem with the wind band, that of decibels... in short we all tend to play too loudly. The reasons for this are five-fold, in part due to the brilliance of the medium with all of those primary colours jostling and competing, in part due to our choice of repertoire, in part due to the noisiness of our modern age, in part due to sheer laziness and in part due to poor conducting. We can learn so much from the great orchestral conductors of our time.
The Abuse, And Misuse, Of Dynamics
Gunther Schuller sums it all up, with reference to symphony orchestras, in his magnificent book, The Compleat Conductor (Oxford University Press).
The abuse, and misuse, of dynamics is perhaps the most common evil in orchestral playing today being either tolerated or generated by our conductors. This is particularly ironic, since the technical abilities of modern players are so high that no claim could ever be made that subtle control is beyond their capabilities. And to excuse this dynamic laziness by saying "its more fun to play loud" or it makes a bigger effect" or "its more exciting" or more philosophically resigned - "it's just human nature", is insufficient reason and just plain laziness, carelessness.
It is at that very highest level of performance that a wealth of interpretative choices and decisions become available at least to the really sensitive intelligent and imaginative recreator. It is in this realm that there is not one pp, but many subtly different pps; not one f but many different kinds of fs, and not one slur but many different kinds of legatos etc. etc. The more basic point however is that it is pp not a p or a mf.
At the 2003 WASBE Conference, the late Wayne Rapier, co-principal oboe for many years of thePhiladelphia and Boston Orchestras, said that as a young player he used to sit in on rehearsals by Stokowsky to try to analyse why the performances were so great. He reckoned that Stokowsky had an incredible control of the architecture of dynamics, with two or three major climatic moments in a concert. I personally remember playing for Ferdinand Leitner in Brahms Symphonies, with our dynamic range extended incredibly - so that a fortissimo at the end was so much louder than a fortissimo at any other time in the work.
Balancing The Brass
Max Rudolf puts it very clearly:
In most halls, the sound level of trumpets and trombones is just right if the conductor barely hears them. The same is true for horns in piano passages, while they often must be encouraged to bring out a forte marcato. Woodwind soloists should hit the conductor's ears quite strongly to make sure that their sound carries into the auditorium. This, of course, must not be accomplished by forcing the tone, which would hurt the instrument's sound quality and intonation. The solution lies in having the accompanying instruments play more softly...
Eric Leinsdorf in another of my bibles, The Composer's Advocate, makes two excellent points about dynamic levels:
Composers often wrote one dynamic mark for the entire vertical scoring involved. They expected performers to adjust their instruments' relative strength according to the primary or secondary importance of their roles.
A Sustained Note Is Always Stronger Than A Moving Voice
There is one fundamental physical law that bears repetition, since so many musicians are unaware of it; a sustained note is always stronger than a moving voice.... There is so much to be decided by the conductor who cares for a balanced performance that no amount of detail can possibly cover the permutations presented by such considerations as types of instruments (and players), size and acoustic of hall, seating arrangements, types of scoring...
Pierre Boulez explains the process of decision making:
There are times when respect for the musical text alone does not serve much purpose. You may have a secondary part written for a relatively weighty instrument, and a principal part written for a much lighter instrument. You have to change the dynamics. I have no qualm about doing that. As a fellow composer, I say to myself, "That's what he wanted to hear, but he didn't have enough experience to write down the exact dynamics,." So I change them, that's all.
The composer has written a certain number of instrumental lines and on the whole, he hasn't done so just to make a general amount of noise. He's composed those lines so that we can hear certain things, so that we can experience a certain hierarchy that's dependant on his writing. What I try to do is to bring out that hierarchy in a very precise way, even when its difficult.
Walter Beeler, one of the great band trainers of the last century said:
Restraint is especially important in fast music; the spirit begins to suffer if played too loud. The audience tires, the players tire and it becomes a very determined piece. It's hard for a band to play with restraint because speed and excitement always tend to increase the volume. But if we rely on articulations, accents and rhythm (rather than volume) to bring about a condition of brightness, it will definitely be more musical.
Richard Strauss Golden Rules
4 Never look encouragingly at the brass, except with a short glance to give an important cue.
6 If you think that the brass is not blowing hard enough, tone it down another shade or two.
I believe that the quality of the music and the level of performance by our top wind groups is second to n one in the world of music. However, rather like our colleagues in the brass band world, we often go for noise to engender brilliance and excitement, and we lose the real energy of contrasts of orchestration, of clarity of little notes, of architecture of dynamics, diversity of accents. However, having said that, the quality all of the performances and repertoire at Ann Arbor was outstanding. I wish I had a group to play some of these works.
Indiana Wind Ensemble
Nine disparate works made up the first programme, Bach and Dvorak transcriptions, bouncily attractive new pieces by Prior, Phan and Puckett, each lasting about six minutes, Ives and Nelson to end on an upbeat, and a deeply felt elegiac cello solo by Michael Schelle, Prayer: Schöne Maydl, commissioned by Robert Grechesky, for me at eleven minutes just a little too lacking in contrast and hence too long. The major work was a large-scale romantic piano concerto by Stephen Paulus, with hints of energetic Prokofiev in the first movement, of the timeless quality of a Bartok slow movement in the second, Tranquil with Mystery, and some marvellous Ravellian wind swirls in the finale, Driving. None of these are quotations, just my reaction as I try to find signposts; the work is twenty minutes in length and has a lot to say, a great addition to the repertoire. My other favorite work here was Race of Gods (2005) by the Vietnamese composer P.Q.Phan, a fleet scherzando miniature tone poem.
Central Michigan University Symphonic Wind Ensmeble
Neatly concise programming by Central Michigan gave us five works, a golden oldie inHammersmith, here given a fine reading by John Williamson, which perhaps did not quite plumb the depths of the serenity of Holst's very slow and very quiet indications. Gillingham 's No Shadow of Turning had some gorgeous writing, full of sentiment, in the introduction, but for me, became too sentimental when quoting the hymn Gentle is Thy Faithfulness. I need to hear Augusta Reed's Magneticfireflies again, but it seemed to me to be a first-rate attempt to write for schools in a contemporary idiom. The Concerto in this programme was the Rhapsody by Frigyes Hidas, a nice tribute to a composer who unfortunately died in February. This is a well-constructed piece for Bass Trombone which eschews the sentimentality of much of Hidas' music, and is a more than welcome addition to the repertoire for that instrument. (There is another fine bass trombone concerto by Marco Pütz). The final performance was Redline Tango of John Mackey, which is always exciting in performance or on disc, given here full vim and vigour.
Florida In Ternational University Wind Ensemble
The problem with conferences is that there are frequently hidden agendas to the performances; here the ensemble had suffered a nightmare journey the day before, arriving at their hotel aftermidnight . They were really tired, and as a result, there was a charm and laid-back quality about their playing which I thoroughly enjoyed. In the Dahl Sinfonietta, a masterpiece of our literature which I have always found a little heavy and dull, there was a transparency and elegance which revolutionized my view of the work and made me want to revisit it. This light dance-quality so often missing in our wind performances was a feature of the Gandolfi Vientos y Tangos. Octandre by Varèse still shocks after some eighty years; it was played here by a group of professors and students, its energy nicely offset by a Grainger trilogy with Folk Tune which I had never heard before. I enjoyed Steven Bryant's Stampede, echoes of Copland and every cowboy film ever seen, full of good humour and played here with a nice feel for the idiom. I very much enjoyed the control, balance and wit of this group and their conductor, Roby George. Perhaps lack of sleep would be the answer to the intense dynamics of many wind groups, and like our England cricket team, they should all party the night before a concert.
Texas Christian University Wind Symphony
Under the energizing baton of Bobby Francis, TCU gave us an attractive mix of works and began with a choir singing the piece on which Grantham's Trumpet Gloria is based, a nice touch. I enjoy multi-faceted programmes if there is at least one major symphonic work to concentrate on, and preferably a concertante piece as well; here we had both, the spiky sonorities of Hindemith's Kammermusik Nr. 7 for organ and ensemble contrasting sharply with the noble expanses of Michael Colgrass's Artic Dreams. A colleague who has performed the work three times said that this was the best choral contribution he had heard, and certainly the nuances of the score, sometimes lost in recordings, came into full play in the splendid Hill Auditorium. They gave us an upbeat beginning and end with the Grantham and the Ives Country Band March, and a pool of serenity in the middle with Ye Banks and Braes, but also another new work, a premiere of Turning by John Mackey; strong, lyrical, intense, full of sentiment but not sentimental, this is a wonderful addition to the pitifully small repertoire of short slow works for band.
Cincinatti Conservatory Chamber Players
We are forever in Rodney Winther's debt for his research which gave us An Annotated Guide to Wind Chamber Music, recently published by Warner Brothers and an essential part of any library. Here he brought a clever five-work programme, two contemporary works preceded by an early 19th century classic, and a second half which contrasted the Gallic wit of Jean Françaix with the Austrian intensity of Arnold Schoenberg. Performances were excellent, neat, and tidy, but I found the Krommer Partita lacked the charm of phrasing which is so essential to this most elegant of composers, and although superbly balanced in the woodwind, the problem of the contemporary horns in the wind ensemble was not always solved, here or in the Schoenberg. I need to hear the Between Blues and Hard Places again before I can assess this world premiere, but I very much enjoyed hearing live the Three Spanish Songs by Matthew Tommasini again. Looking back over the week, Terence Milligan's unobtrusive direction of the very funny Hommage à l'Ami Papageno was as delightful as anything in the conference, and took me back to a performance in Manchester with the composer at the piano. Funny music is quite hard to bring off, but the CCM Chamber Players managed it here and largely in the Krommer, where more risks with dynamics and phrasing might have paid off. I wonder whether stage-shifting could have been smoother - I always find long gaps watching chairs, stands and music moving about quite distracting.
University Of Michigan Symphony Band
No such problems beset the start of this concert, two Takemitsu fanfares enclosed Milhaud's little masterpiece, each following without applause. This restrained first group gave way to the exuberance of Michael Daugherty's Raise the Roof for Timpani and Symphonic Band, enthusiastically energetic in performance by Michael Haithcock and the home team and the only work of the week to be awarded a standing ovation; if you like Michael Daugherty music, you will love this macho concerto. The second half just included two major statements, Hour of the Soul by Gaubuldaina which was impressive but needs repeated hearings, and a fine reading ofDionysiaques. There is an energy and excitement about the Michigan Band which sweeps the audience along whatever the repertoire, and while I prefer the clarity of the smaller wind ensemble, the Michigan performances have a maturity and depth which was there under H. Robert Reynolds and has been fostered and developed by our wonderful host for this conference, Michael Haithcock.
Small College Intercollegiate Band
So to the final day, and a programme of three works by composer/conductor, Fank Ticheli, with Grainger and Grantham as the filling in a double sandwich. Ticheli is energetic and charming, his music-making fun and full of interest. His new work Nitro might be described as minimal Copland; subtitled a Fanfare for Band, this is a very useful addition to the repertoire of 'openers'. Grainger's Children's March was nicely paced and pointed, Grantham's hilarious moto perpetuo,Baron Cemetiere's Mambo was very amusing, and they enclosed Frank's Sanctuary, beautifully played and yet for me a little too sweet and sentimental - that word again. It is based on the idea of Granger's Colonial Song, his own First Sentimental, so perhaps I should not grumble. No grumbles about his Symphony no 2, commissioned to honour Jim Croft on his retirement, and now an astonishing four years old. Frank has a real gift for writing what works and sounds good, as someone said, a skill born of being a natural conductor. The students sounded as if they had had a ball with Frank throughout the week.
The Hartt School Wind Ensemble
University of Hartford
This concert was loud, as was their concert at the Eastern Division Regional Conference last year. Many wind bands play too loud, and this is one of the loudest. The missed point is that the excitement of the wind band, or of any ensemble, is not in the noise level, which just becomes boring, but the detail, the crescendi and diminuendi, the variety of accents, the colours of double reeds and weaker percussion, the intensity of the inner harmonic progressions. Bands and orchestras must also consider the acoustic; the New York premiere of Corigliano'sCircus Maximus in Carnegie Hall was thrilling, but I was glad to have my hearing aid in - turned off! A year later, the magnificent Strathmore Arts Centre near Baltimore could take every nuance of the score with ease and comfort.
Some time ago I went to hear a rehearsal and concert by Sir Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra of Blood on the Floor by Mark-Anthony Turnage. Both composer and conductor were excited by the percussion kit, the electric guitar, electric keyboard and the heavy brass, and ignored the fact that sitting the other side of the stage was a small group of strings, wind and harp, totally inaudible. I felt so strongly that a reduction in the noise level of 10-20% just some of the time would have thrown the climaxes into huge relief and allowed us to hear the multicoloured scoring of these weaker instruments in the breathing spaces between the peaks.
Glen Adsit and his players are first rate, he gets incredible accuracy, the sound is very loud but never forced, the passage work virtuosic. However, I could not help contrasting the end of Joseph Schwantner's Recoil, which ended with a lower intensity than the previous three minutes and left the audience dazed, not knowing whether to clap or not; there was a performance later that evening of another very noisy piece, John Mackey's Turbine, in which the high decibel factor was off-set by enormous care over the detail of crescendi, subito pianoor different types of accent. There was a growing sense of inevitability at the end which led us inexorably onwards with a louder ffff than any previous ffff, the kind of growth that we feel at the end of Stravinsky's Danse Sacrale. I learned such a lot about timing from our opera producer in Manchester , who would insist that we keep the energy level throughout a scene sustained and rising in intensity.
That being said, this was indeed a high velocity programme, and the exciting virtuosity of Scott Hartman, trombone in the premiere of Passagi by Stephen Gryc and of Ben Toth in Tales from the Centre of the Earth by Zivkovic saved me from sheer boredom of being battered by noise. Glen gave a fine apologia of why he selected these three works, but it was heavy duty even for those of us going deaf. Recoil I need to hear again, perhaps in a bigger but dryer acoustic, the Gryc and the Zivkovic I would programme if I had a great ensemble. They are both terrific. It was a nice touch to commission a Lullaby from Joe Turrin (check out his opera The Scarecrowon his website) to go with Bassett's Lullaby for Kirsten, conducted lovingly by H Robert Reynolds.
Florida State University Wind Orchestra
This was a concert in which I enjoyed every aspect, the programming, performances, balance, phrasing, sound world. If I have the smallest quibble it was in the slightly heavy handed accompaniment to the Kurt Weill Violin Concerto, a lighter touch from Rick Clary, one of my favorite wind conductors, would have made this score more transparent and have brought out the bitter-sweet wit of Weill's accompaniment.
Grantham's Court Music is a fun piece, full of engaging sounds, and I have already commented on the performance of John Mackey's Turbine. This work will always be exciting, it inhabits that typical wind world, and we all do 'exciting' very well, but Mackey includes a huge amount of detail that can get lost very easily but was featured strongly here. In contrast we heard Jonathan Newman's beautiful As the Scent of Spring Rain, at last a miniature, full of sentiment but not sentimental. We are lucky at present to have so many older and younger composers of real talent and imagination writing for us. One of the most skilled is Dan Welcher, and it was a considerable experience to hear such a fine performance of his Symphony No 4 to go alongside Frank Ticheli's Symphony No. 2, two major musical statements of our time.
Rick Clary has built on the legacy of Jim Croft and turned this ensemble into a very potent force in wind music, retaining the quality of sound and elegance of phrasing which was such a feature, and adding on perhaps a greater efficiency, accuracy in pointing rhythms, a wider dynamic range, in all a maturity which we find in the President's Own or in the best of the world's symphony orchestras playing at their peak. While I was delighted with most of the programming of all nine concerts, and thrilled as ever by the playing, we in the wind world perhaps have one more journey to make towards mature performances which are not over-stretched and over-exuberant, in which there is no testosterone-fuelled competitive element.
The Future Of Contemporary Music Is In This Room
One great legacy from the 2005 New York Conference was the welcome publication by Donald Hunsberger of essays on the Wind Band in and around New York 1830-1950. Many of the papers for 2007 are available on the CBDNA website in extract. I hope they too get published and I hope that Michigan can post the composer's panel that ended the meetings, a fascinating discussion between Joseph Schwantner, Matthew Tomassini, Michael Daugherty and Dan Welcher. It was extraordinary that we could have had a second panel with Michael Colgrass, Jonathan Newman, Stephen Bryant, John Mackey and other composers who had premieres; this is where a conference really earns its corn, fostering the interaction between composers, conductors and players. Michael Daugherty's bon mot about the future of contemporary music met with enthusiasm, but mine was tempered by sadness that earlier he referred to Stockhausen "your favorite composer', which was met with loud laughter. Stockhausen is not my favorite composer, but I worry when I hear sentimental tunes and clichéd chord progressions whether for school or university band, in works which ignore what has been written during the past century, whether by Varese, Stravinsky, Bartok or even Stockhausen - (I am becoming a grumpy old man.)
Final Thoughts On Dynamics
If we as wind band conductors are to have a future in the world of real music, we must develop a more sophisticated approach to our music making, starting with the problem of noise. I wanted to ask the composers panel whether they felt we were doing a good job in interpreting their dynamics. Like Mozart, most composers write forte or fortissimo right down the score, whether for flutes, oboes, trumpets, trombones, snare drum or cymbals. Leinsdorf wrote:
Another kind of balancing problem arises from conventions of classical scoring and is sometimes apparent even in the early twentieth century. Composers often wrote one dynamic mark for the entire vertical scoring involved. Rare are the instances of graded dynamics in scores prior to 1850. They expected the performers to adjust their instruments' relative strengths according to the primary or secondary importance of their roles.
I think they still do today, since it is impossible for a composer to write sensibly all of the nuances which will balance a chord perfectly with a dozen different family types in a myriad of different situations. We need to invite our players to address these problems, and we need to carefully balance every measure. The mature wind orchestra and the careful conductor will automatically edit these markings.
The Single Forte Is Often Overdriven
On the subject of loud music, Leinsdorf sums up the dilemma in a discussion of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony:
The optimum effect is created by a well-considered scale of dynamics. Achieving it requires a firm resolve that nothing before bar 427 of the finale in Beethoven's Seventh Symphony shall reach the triple-forte level. There are many ff spots in the preceding forty minutes of play, and every one of them is a bit different. The scoring is different, the emphasis is different and the impact should be different. Perhaps the most decisive nuance in this whole reckoning will be the single f, which is, alas, often overdriven.
Foolish Scrapings And Meaningless Noise
Leopold Mozart re-inforces this view of forte when he writes ...wherever a forte is written down, the tone is to be used with moderation without foolish scrapings.
And finally it is worth repeating a couple of bon mots on crescendo. First Gunther Schuller, who writes:
As the crescendo is initially held back and then gradually released to run its course, its ultimate resolution, when it finally arrives, is all the more exciting, dramatic and rewarding.
And lastly Von Bülow who insisted that Diminuendo signifies forte, crescendo signifies piano.
The excitement comes from contrast, not from noise. I am often laughed at with my T-shirts that state forte is a light dynamic, and one distinguished conductor at Ann Arbor quoted me as asserting that forte is a soft dynamic. Baloney - its light! Professor Musin in St Petersburgused to say memorably that forte is a characteristic. We would do well to remember that in Italian the word means strong, not loud or heavy. Steve Bryant came up with a wonderful description of dynamics as implying energy.