Friday, November 30, 2012

Conductor's Notes by Paul Cummings

Zacatecas (1892) by Genaro Codina

Zacatecas is a state in Mexico where Genaro Codina was born and raised, and never left. The municipal band had a composition contest, and Codina won it with this march. Since then it’s become amazingly famous in Mexico. It’s known as Mexico’s second national anthem.

Dusk (2004) by Steven Bryant

This is our one and only slow piece on the program—and it’s a very, very slow piece. The tempo marking is a quarter note equals 48 beats a minute--so slow that some metronomes don’t even go down to that speed. It’s a challenge to play.

 This piece attempts to capture the spirit of sunset. In the introduction to the score he writes, “This simple chorale-like work captures the reflective calm of dusk, paradoxically illuminated by the fiery hues of sunset. I’m always struck by the dual nature of this experience, as if witnessing an event of epic proportions silently occurring in slow motion. Dusk is intended as a short, passionate evocation of this moment of dramatic stillness.” That’s one of the best descriptions of a piece by a composer I’ve ever read.

Bryant is a living American composer in his 40s, gaining national recognition mostly because he includes electronica in his works for acoustic instruments. This particular piece doesn’t do that, but that’s his claim to fame.

Gum-Suckers March (1914) by Percy Grainger

We do a lot of Grainger’s music, as do most collegiate wind bands, because he’s written more for wind bands than any other composer. He was born in Australia, went to Europe and lived for awhile in England. He started out as a concert pianist—he was famous for performing the world premiere of Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor. But he emigrated in the United States towards the end of World War I, and joined the U.S. Army Band, which he where he learned how to write for wind band.

Gum-Suckers March incorporates an Australian folk song in the middle of it—something Grainger did in other pieces. This folk song is the one lyric moment. Otherwise it is a raucous piece, and a challenging one for all the instruments. Its Australian roots are in the title as well as the folk melody. Gum-suckers refers to the people from the state of Victoria in Australia, and the local habit of sucking the leaves of eucalyptus trees for their flavor, until the leaf turns kind of gum-like.

Bugler’s Holiday (1954) by Leroy Anderson

This is a famous piece from 1954, often done around the holiday season. It features three soloists who will be out in front of the band. I know the audience will be impressed with them—they are really terrific. It’s a delightful, toe-tapping piece—not really pop music, but sort of light Americana. It’s sort of in the vein of Victor Herbert and his operettas. It’s the type of piece that the John Philip Sousa band did on their tours, mixed in with marches, opera arias and transcriptions of orchestral overtures.

Suite of Old American Dances (1949) by Robert Bennett

This is by far the most substantial work on the program—a five movement work, with each movement centered on a particular dance that was popular in America in the early 20th century.

  Bennett’s original title for this suite was “Electric Park,” because when he was growing up in Kansas City he often went to the amusement park of that name. He recalled spending many hours, walking past the dance hall there and hearing a little combo inside playing these various dances. Later he wrote, “I had a nice name for it but you know how publishers are. They know their customers and we authors never seem to.” The publishers made him change it to Suite of Old American Dances.

The five dances are the Cakewalk, the Schottische-- a Scottish waltz which is actually more similar to a polka in 2/4 time, the Western One-Step, Wallflower Waltz and Rag. It’s a wonderful piece, with lots of demanding rhythmic playing because Bennett uses jazz rhythms that were coming into vogue in the first decade of the 20th century.

  Bennett is probably best known as the greatest Broadway arranger who ever lived. He worked with all the great composers of the 40s, 50s and into the 60s. He took their scores—often just a lead piano sheet—and fully orchestrated them for the Broadway pit orchestra. Oklahoma, Showboat, Kiss Me Kate, Sound of Music, Camelot, Porgy and Bess, Annie Get Your Gun, My Fair Lady and a lot more--he really knew how to write for a small pit ensemble, and his concert band pieces are great.

Lassus Trombone (1915) by Henry Fillmore

This is a piece from the little known genre for wind band called “the smear.” No one should be too upset if they didn’t learn about it in music appreciation class, because it’s a style of light march music in which trombones use their slide to create wonderful melodic effects that cannot be done on any other instrument—at least not very easily.

Since trombones can produce an infinite range of pitches within one partial of the harmonic series, it’s capable of doing smears-- the technical term is glissando. So this piece is based on this technical capability. Other instruments call do glissando but they basically go pitch by pitch in the equal tempered chromatic scale. The trombone doesn’t have to bother with the equal tempered chromatic scale because it can produce every micro pitch in between the standard 12 notes of the chromatic scale.

We have five trombonists out in front of the band displaying their smear technique for one and all. Fillmore wrote a number of smears but this one is by far the most famous. John Philip Sousa performed it daily for years with his band. You’ll hear it—along with Bugler’s Holiday—in almost every municipal band concert in the summer, in hundreds of small towards throughout the United States.

Somebody asked Fillmore what the title meant, and he said “Why, molasses, of course. I thought of molasses on bread for breakfast, dinner and supper.”

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