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WASBE 1999

This article first appeared in the WASBE Newsletter

I firmly believe that music will someday become a "universal language". But it will not become so as long as our musical vision is limited to the output of four European countries between 1700 and 1900. The first step in the right direction is to view the music of all peoples and periods without prejudice of any kind, and strive to put the world's known and available best music into circulation. Only then shall we be justified in calling music a "universal language". Percy Grainger

Percy Grainger

WASBE, the World Association for Symphonic Bands and Ensembles, was formed in 1981 as the result of the first International Conference of Symphonic Bands & Wind Ensembles for Conductors, Composers and Publishers, convened under the Chairmanship of Frank Battisti, Immediate Past President of the College Band Directors National Association (CBDNA). The primary objective of WASBE is to promote symphonic bands and ensembles as a serious and distinctive medium of musical expression and cultural heritage.

The efforts of wind band conductors and administrators throughout the world have done much to carry out Percy Grainger's vision of world music. The majority of our repertoire is written since 1900, and the main focus has swung from Europe in the 19th century to America in this. The domination of wind band music by American composers and publishers needs to be balanced by access to information about the vast amount of activity in Europe, South America, Asia, and the Far East. As Percy Grainger suggested, it is repertoire that is the secret key to our development. I passionately believe that we need to extend our knowledge of the repertoire internationally, whether of marches, dances, folk-suites, jazz or symphonic music, and to develop its accessibility. We must have vision without prejudice, and put the world's known and best available music into circulation.

If you were the conductor or manager of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and were charged with putting together a series of programs of music since 1950, you would probably look first at the American contribution of Gershwin, Copland, Bernstein, Schuman, Piston, Cage, Reich and Adams, and then put them into context against Lutoslawski, Ligeti, Berio, Stockhausen, Tippett, Gorecki, Paart, and Takemitsu; in fact you would take a world overview. With a medium such as the wind ensemble, still a minority love, still way down below symphony orchestra, opera, chamber music, jazz, R & B and folk in terms of critical interest and popular acclaim, we desperately need this international approach, in our repertoire and in our performance standards. We need as Gunther Schuller puts it "to get out of academia" and enter the real world of music, the international world. Through WASBE, composers and publishers in Iceland and Israel, Luxembourg and Lithuania can share their music with the rest of us. It is up to players and conductors to let WASBE members know through the various professional magazines and newsletters what they consider to be the best emerging repertoire and how to track it down.

A Personal Selection of Repertoire at the Conference

Repertoire selection is a matter of taste, and as a colleague in Germany put it in a recent message: "What rings your bell might not ring mine". We need another 10, 20 or 100 differing opinions to assess this conference properly and any repertorie properly. Look in the Journal for 1999 for other views.

I come to the band from orchestra and opera. I work mainly with quite advanced groups, often on contemporary repertoire, but it is important to me to identify good material, which I can use with school bands or in conducting courses. I remember hearing dozens of works at the Chicago Mid-West and bringing back to England Jay Chattaway's Mazuma, which I thought had nice colouristic effects and atmosphere, some energy and drama, and also David Maslanka's Rollo takes a Walk, a rare piece in the wind band world, something that is genuinely quite funny.

Grade 3 & 4 Repertoire

At any Conference, including WASBE, I am seeking repertoire at all levels that is well crafted and seizes my attention aesthetically and emotionally. This conference program had only one session on literature for school bands, but there were some gems, I enjoyed it immensely, partially due to the committed performances by the Oklahoma State University Wind Ensemble. Nelson's Courtly Airs and Dances are charming pastiche; Rudin is a composer who writes with sensitivity and intensity from the heart, and the Dream of Oenghus is extremely useful. Three other lyrical pieces could be very useful: Brian Hogg's Llwyn Onn, Ticheli's Shenandoah and Hardy Merten's Sa Oghe 'e su Bentu. I enjoyed the variety and craftsmanship of Timothy Broege's Sinfonia IX, and think that a good school band could have a fantastic time with Hiroshi Hoshina's An Ancient Festival. With Adam Gorb, I must declare an interest since I commissioned all three of his works played at conference: Bridgewater Breeze, five very attractive dance movements at Grade 3; his Klezmer inspired Yiddish Dances at Grade 4 (though you need good solo Eb clarinet and other soloists full of character); and the sparklingAwayday (must be Grade 6) designed as an alternative to Bernstein's Overture to Candide. Gorb has a light touch, writes good tunes, and combines wit with occasional passion.

Professional & Conservatoire Level

Taste is quite variable; one man's meat is another man's poison. In the first concert, I found Messagio by Lukas too diffuse in idiom. Bits of Dvorak and Janacek are mixed with ancient and modern. Maslanka's Tears just did not work for me. It is too much in sections, which did not hang together. Jack Fortner's Il Combattimento di Fiati, Ottonie la Batteria is in a more challenging but consistent idiom. I enjoy the sheer energy, wit and sometimes tenderness of Philip Wilby's virtuosic Concerto for Euphonium. A close colleague and friend on the WASBE Board thought exactly the opposite. He liked the Lukas and Maslanka and disliked the Fortner and Wilby. Another distinguished composer said of Philip's exuberance: "too many notes." Vive la difference!

Many of the new and recent works were wonderfully scored, virtuosic vehicles for bands and conductors. For me, as a non-academic, the musical thought very often did not match the scale of the work. For instance, I loved Hardy Mertens heartfelt almost Mahlerian miniature Sa Oghe 'e su Bentu heard at the reading session, whereas I found him unable to sustain the much larger form of U Mundu Drentu A Ti so successfully.

Donald Grantham's Southern Harmony lived up to reports from the CBDNA Conference as a sensitive, well-crafted evocative tone poem. What other works have been played recently at CBDNA, NBA, ABA, JBA, BASBWE, the Swedish Symposium, the Mid-Europe Conference, the Mid-West Clinic, which should have been played at WASBE 99? Instead of, for instance, Husa's Les Couleurs Fauves, surely one of the most significant works of the last five years, we had Ito'sGlorioso for the third WASBE running, and only two movements of it. Glorioso is extremely expensive, but it is very good, and you can buy it in two sections from Shattingers. We will be playing it this autumn. So often the larger works are built on trivial musical ideas which, for me, become pretentious, sometimes repetitious, often lacking variety except in the imaginative scoring.

Could Be Useful

I wrote the comment "could be useful" next to several works. If you had six stunning brass players looking for a platform, you might well turn to the Bourgeois Concerto for Brass Sextet and Wind Orchestra as the only piece for this combination. But I found it trite, much less interesting than his Symphony of Winds or Sinfonietta, and it sounds like what it is: a poor transcription from the brass band original. I did not hear the Kozhevnikov Symphony Number 3, but I think it is an important addition to our pitifully weak 19th century original repertoire. Mellilo's Godspeed, and Mahoney's Sparkle rang my bell, and it was refreshing to hear major works by Hindemith, Gershwin, Bennett and Maslanka.

Concerti

There were very few in evidence this year and I have already mentioned the Wilby Euphonium Concerto, with its Cretan plate-smashing Dance. The arrangement of Fisher Tull's Concertino for Oboe by Dennis Fisher is nicely done; this is romantic music, perhaps American Vaughan Williams. More striking is Tony McCutchen's arrangement of Ney Rosauro's Concerto for Marimba, which is hard to balance but actually works better than in the original string version. Vasssili Kalinkovic found new things to do with that theme by Paganini in his stunning ConcertCapriccio for Alto Saxophone and Band, played with tremendous virtuosity by the conductor of the renowned Belgian Guides, Norbert Nozy. Ken Benshoof's Out and Back Again for violin, 'cello and band, had some very pleasant ideas but for me drifted away; the Hidas Concerto for Bassoon is to my mind a little weak, but it has attractive ideas and could be useful for your bassoon expert. I would recommend the Juriaan Andriessen Concertino for Bassoon and Wind Dectet, suggested by Bob Garafalo in his very good joint presentation with Jim Croft on chamber music repertoire.

More Observations

In addition to the thirteen concerts and one repertoire session, there were chamber concerts by the Omnibus Wind Ensemble from Sweden, the Stockholm Saxophone Quartet, and the Ensemble Argentinos de Clarinetes, as well as a jazz concert by the Fresno State University Alumni Jazz Band. The concerts by the Banda Sinfonica Estado de Sao Paolo, Brazil and the Dallas Wind Symphony were cancelled. One of the highlights of the conference was the playing of Omnibus Wind Ensemble, all from memory with imaginative and sometimes outrageous arrangements of Mozart to Zappa. They gave an object lesson in phrasing, in lightness of touch, in spontaneity, echoing many of the themes of Larry Rachleff's superb rehearsal master class. Many of us would do well to free ourselves up conducting-wise, letting our gestures spring from the phrase, the articulation, and the sound quality, rather than be super-imposed technically. It was good to have Larry, Toshiyuki Shimada and Wayne Marshall coming to us from the real world of orchestra concerts and opera.

In general the bands were too loud for the quite sensitive acoustic of the concert hall. The gala concerts in Hamamatsu and Manchester were given in 2000 seat halls which can cope with a 70-piece band playing very loudly. Works such as Daugherty's Niagara Falls or David Gillingham's Galactic Empires might be better than they sounded, too often just becoming noise, reaching the threshold of pain, even for this deaf wind ensemble director. We must constantly remind ourselves that the easiest thing to do with a wind band is to make a noise. It is difficult to work on the control of dynamics at the lower end of the scale, and we should always check on the acoustics of different halls with care. Many works for band encourage time beating, and this in turn is reflected in heavy-footed performances of the classics of our repertoire, band-based rather than music-based. The density of sound in the band/wind ensemble literature demands a more careful balance of sonorities, clearer articulation, and above all idiomatic phrasing. This is our weakest point amongst the virtuosity and excitement. As always, there were many extremely good bands at the Conference. I never hope to conduct a better or more flexible University ensemble than the North Texas Wind Symphony, and others rivalled their efficiency and musicianship.

It goes without saying that with host Bill Johnson's vast experience, this conference was superbly organized and marshalled. The Californian weather could not have been bettered, the Californian welcome and hospitality lived up to its legend, and there are few universities in so picturesque a setting, within 20 minutes of the beach, 20 minutes of the nearest wineries, with excellent and affordable restaurants, and great facilities. The only slightest criticism was that there was nowhere for the hundreds of delegates to meet socially, and it was hard to locate any office on campus. I still have a couple of emails searching for me.

My personal taste and prejudices are here laid bare; you can hear all of these concerts in the splendidly produced collection of CDs from Mark Custom records. It goes without saying that there was something for everyone, and many great new works to add to our repertoire.