Friday, May 03, 2013

From Led Zep to Rome with the HSU Symphonic Band

The clarinet is a versatile instrument—but can it really sound like an electric guitar? Blake McGee, visiting clarinetist from the University of Wyoming, will put it to the test when he plays with the HSU Symphonic Band on May 3.

 McGee performs on Black Dog by Scott McAllister, a symphonic band interpretation of the iconic Led Zeppelin song of that title. “The composer calls for the clarinet to take the part of the lead singer, and also perform solos in Jimi Hendrix fashion,” said HSU Symphonic Band conductor Paul Cummings. “It’s pretty clear from the first measures that the clarinet is imitating a rock and roll guitar.”

 McAllister, a composer and clarinetist who currently teaches composition at Baylor University, “is known for using rock music as the basis for his work,” said Cummings. “He’s definitely a composer who takes in all of modern culture and tries to reflect that in his work.”

 For Cummings and clarinetist McGee, this piece is also a reunion. They have known each other since graduate school at the University of Oregon. “I conducted one of the works he played for his doctorate,” Cummings said. “It was also by Scott McAllister.’” 

The Led Zeppelin song “Black Dog” is on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs. It opens Led Zeppelin’s fourth album (released in 1971) and is likely to be recognized even by those who don’t know it by its title. The McAllister Black Dog, said Cummings, is "a fascinating amalgam of classical and hard rock music.”  

 The Symphonic Band plays another work by a young composer-- John Mackey’s Hymn to a Blue Hour—as well as a piece by Virgil Thomson and Luigi Zaninelli’s Three Dances of Enchantment.

 “John Mackey is certainly among the most prominent young American composers,” Cummings said. “He has a real gift for melody, and even though this is a slow piece it has a lot of melody for listeners to hang their ears on.” Hymn for a Blue Hour refers to the unique qualities of light between twilight and complete darkness, which filmmakers call the Magic Hour.  According to Mackey, he wrote it when challenged to compose a slow piece, in contrast to his usual loud and fast works.

 A Solemn Music is by 20th century American composer Virgil Thomson. Thomson spent formative years in Paris and collaborated with Gertrude Stein on two operas, the second of which (The Mother of Us All) was produced in 1947, after her death. In 1949 Thomson wrote A Solemn Music in memory of Stein and of French artist and fashion designer Christian BĂ©rard, who had died earlier that year. “It’s a great piece of music--one of the standard works for the wind band, by a very important American composer,” Cummings said. 

"Three Dances of Enchantment is not yet a standard work, since it’s only been around since 2006,” Cumming said, “but it gets a lot of performances across the country.” This piece by Italian-American composer Luigi Zaninelli evokes memories of Rome, Ireland and an Italian-American festival from his childhood where he first heard a live band. “All three are audience-friendly with very tuneful passages,” Cummings said, “ but they also have a definite 21st century harmonic vocabulary.”

 HSU Symphonic Band performs on Friday May 3 at 8 p.m. in the Fulkerson Recital Hall on the HSU campus in Arcata. Tickets are $7/3/free to HSU students with ID, from the HSU Ticket Office (826-3928) or at the door. Conducted by Paul Cummings, produced by the HSU Music Department.

Media: Humboldt State Now, Arcata Eye

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