In hearing nine concerts in the Kaufmann Center’s Helzberg Hall during a period of four days, I began to perceive (I’m stopping short of “concluding”) that wind bands play too much loud music too often, especially when they are trying to impress more than their normal audiences. Moreover, the amazing Helzberg Hall may be slightly better for intra-ensemble acoustics (the players can hear each other really well) than for audiences listening to wind and percussion instruments. Helzberg’s acoustic design, based on the interior of a cello, produces fine results, not to mention being visually appealing, but it can be almost too resonant for the typical dB output of a modern wind band with strong tone and a high performance level.
During the CBDNA conference, I made it a point to sit in four different areas of the hall, and it seemed to me that the wind band sound tended to be the most overwhelming in places that might be assumed to be optimum seating. Another attendee and I briefly discussed the sound and the concerts, and he suggested the ensembles might have needed more rehearsal time in the hall. (I observed that one group had at least an hour to do sound checks.) Another variable could be the artistic leadership and musicianship level of certain groups. In other words, I think it is the most mature groups with the most discerning leaders that have been the most sonically successful, and the least overwhelming, in the aggregate.
Hearing new repertoire is always a great benefit of Midwest and CBDNA conferences, and this event was no exception. Despite the overwhelming positives, some of which I will caption below, I think that too much of the new rep tends toward what I might call “the new band-y.” Stereotypically band-y sonorities of the second half of the twentieth century have their place, and I love some of those pieces, but variety is good—if not to save the ears or delight the senses, then to continue developing the outside world’s perception that wind band music can be artistic music and is not to be relegated to a second-class box behind string or full-orchestral or choral music. The music of some of these CBDNA concerts struck me as too much “in your face”—too loud, heavy-hitting, and too much brash, full-ensemble texture. Those accusations (and others, e.g., “humdrum, formulaic compositional technique”) could also be leveled at much of the 1970s and 1980s school band repertoire—a repertoire that in general terms has been pejoratively labeled “band-y” by those of us who want to move toward a richer, more nuanced repertory. Although no observation here is intended as absolute, I’d say that several of the ensembles featured at the conference could have spent more time exploiting transparent, one-on-a-part chamber textures and softer dynamic levels. One university performance in particular showed a lack of discerning programming: stylistic, textural imbalance was evident. On the up side, some of the in-your-face pieces were very effective and even powerful, but there were simply too many of them. None of this is to say that the ensembles didn’t have the capacity to play varied kinds of artistic music; it is to suggest that some of them didn’t display enough variety in their programs.
With those criticisms behind, I’d now like to highlight a few positives from some of these programs. I was enraptured buy a new (transcribed) clarinet concerto¹ by Jonathan Leshnoff and was also wowed by Mason Bates’s 2015 percussion concerto Sideman—both premiered by the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music Wind Ensemble. This ensemble is now led by Rob Carnochan, a conductor I met in at my first CU-Boulder symposium in 2001, as I was at the dawn of my conducting training. Here are some other notable pieces on my “yes” list:
- BJ Brooks: The Butterfly Chaser (2016) (YouTube link)
- Aaron Perrine: A Glimpse of the Eternal (2016) (an impressive, four-minute work with fanfare figurations)
- Zhou Long: Concerto for Wind Symphony: Ancient Echoes (2017)
- Adam Schoenberg: Symphony No. 2: Migration (with movements about aspects of emigration/immigration)
- Jennifer Jolley: The Eyes of the World Are Upon You (2016) (homage to the deceased and survivors of the first mass school shooting on record, at UT in 1966)
Scott McAllister’s Freebirds (2010) didn’t work too well for me; it seemed a gratuitous, vain attempt to bring Lynyrd Skynyrd into the realm of wind instruments. Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Suite from On the Waterfront (1955), transcribed in 2012 by Jay Bocook, was performed by the UMKC Conservatory Wind Symphony and Conservatory Dancers. This piece does work, and very well! The performance was one of a kind in spatial and visual terms, and the music was celebratory, energetic, and musical, to boot. I had the added pleasure of seeing a former student from South Texas perform in this group.
It should be stated that the schools represented above are some of the finest, most highly reputed schools of music in the country: Michigan State and the universities of Georgia, Texas, Kansas. (These schools tend to rank alongside the U of Mich, Eastman, the New England Conservatory, U of North Texas, CU-Boulder, Indiana U, and others.) In a future post, I will treat the concert I considered the best of the entire conference—a Saturday afternoon offering by Northwestern University’s (Chicago) Symphonic Wind Ensemble—specifically appraising two stellar pieces that ensemble performed.
¹ The other clarinet concerto heard during this conference was transcribed by Craig Davis from John Corigliano’s original orchestral version, was performed virtuosically by Jonathan Gunn, but it is not high on my list as a composition.