Friday, May 03, 2013

Symphonic Band Concert Notes by Paul Cummings

This is an edited version of an interview.

Black Dog by Scott McAllister
This piece is based on the Led Zeppelin song. Scott McAllister is known for using rock music as the basis for his work, whether directly borrowing as in this case, or loosely paraphrasing a rock piece, or the style of the piece, as he’s done in other works. He’s definitely a composer who is taking in all of modern culture, and trying to reflect that in his work.

 So that’s an interesting subtext in itself, because composers tend to work in a more isolated artistic environment where they may be influenced by other classical music or earlier art forms, earlier musical styles, but Scott McAllister is clearly immersed in modern American culture, and it comes through in this piece. So the piece gives us all--players and audience—a chance to reflect on the question, what should band music be like? Should it be a more esoteric art form, to be played only by the most sophisticated musicians in conservatories, or should it be more a music for the people? That’s one of many subtexts to the music.

 According to the composer: ‘This work is inspired by classic hard rock music, particularly Led Zeppelin’s rhapsodic style song, “Black Dog.” The clarinet solo takes the role of the lead singer in a hard rock band, with its extreme range and emotions juxtaposed with pyrotechnic solos in true Jimi Hendrix fashion.” So you don’t have to be a trained musician to notice—even in the first few measures—that the clarinet is imitating a rock and roll guitar. That’s exactly what it sounds like, and I know that Dr. McGee will put that across.

 The soloist interacts with the band in a way that soloists often do with large ensembles, almost like a concerto. There are passages of solo material for the clarinet, passages where the clarinet is playing with the full ensemble, and passages where it’s only the band playing. So it has musical variety. There are slower sections that are a little more meditative, but mostly it’s a fascinating amalgam of classical and hard rock music.

 A Solemn Music by Virgil Thomson

A Solemn Music is a very slow, rather dark piece. It is atonal, meaning it is not in a key. It is not a 12 tone work per se, where you would find a row of 12 tones being used as the structural basis for the piece, but nevertheless it is in the atonal category, where all 12 notes of the scale are considered to be equal.

 This is really an ensemble piece with a few solo passages. It is varied in use of instruments but they are frequently combined into fairly large groups, so the texture does not ever thin out too much. There’s a big emphasis on dynamics, as you might expect with atonal music, since composers often use other musical elements to create variety and interest. So dynamics and tone color are important elements in this work. It’s as if Virgil Thomson is making a concession to listeners who may be searching for a melody or a key center-something familiar—and so he uses these other devices to create interest.

It’s a great piece of music—one of the standard works for the wind band, by a very important American composer. He may not have the same stature as Charles Ives, George Gershwin or Aaron Copland, but Virgil Thomson was a big part of the American music scene in the 1940s and 50s especially.

Three Dances of Enchantment by Luigi Zaninelli

 This is not a standard work for wind band—it’s only been around 2006—not long enough to become a standard-- but it’s gotten a lot of performances across the country. According to the composer, “It’s a suite of three dances inspired by personal experiences in my life, which through the years continue to resonate in my memory.”

 The first movement is “Via Veneto”, which is a musical reminiscence of what he calls “those La Dolce Vita days I spent while in Rome on one of the fashionable streets, as a young film composer. There I watched and learned with great fascination about the world of Italian filmmaking.”

 The second movement, “She Walks Through the Fair," is based on “a haunting, bittersweet melody which I discovered on my visit to Ireland.” So there’s a little Irish flavor in this work, including the opening piccolo solo, piccolo being closely related to traditional Irish instruments such as the penny whistle and the fife.

 The third movement is called “The Feast of St. Rocco”: “a joyous Italian American celebration dedicated to St. Rocco held every summer in my hometown of Raritan, New Jersey. It was here in my fathers arms at the age of 5 that I first experienced the vibrant bold tartness of an Italian band. It was so loud and so wonderful.”

 These are very audience-friendly. All three of them have tuneful passages, but it’s interesting that the melodic material is couched in a very modern harmonic language—this is definitely a 21st century harmonic vocabulary. So it’s great for college students to experience music where you have these traditional elements and vibrant rhythm, but written in the context of modern compositional techniques.

Hymn to a Blue Hour by John Mackey

 John Mackey is certainly among the very prominent young American composers. He’s a Julliard graduate who studied with composer John Corigliano of The Red Violin fame. This piece is rather new—2010.

 Again it’s a slow, plaintive work, similar to Thomson’s A Solemn Music but with a very different harmonic language. This is very tonal music, unlike the Thomson, but Mackey has a real gift for melody, so even in this slow piece there is a lot of familiar melodic material for the listeners to hang their ears on.

 The demands on performers are extensive, not because of the technique, but for intonation, for blend, for balance, for knowing your musical role—when your part is primary, when it’s secondary, when it represents a top layer versus a bottom layer in the musical fabric—those elements are really challenging.

 I don’t know if  I’ve done a concert where I have two very slow works on the same program, as we have with the Mackey and the Thomson. So in a way we’re asking the audience to be very patient and take in this more pensive kind of music. But it’s very rewarding, and I think the students are enjoying it-–in seeing the richness that’s possible in slow works. When you’re not worried about technique and moving your fingers all over your instrument quickly, you can do more listening, and appreciate the harmony and the colors. So we’re enjoying that experience.

No comments: