Friday, December 05, 2014

Symphonic Band:Conductor's Notes

Edited from interviews with conductor Paul Cummings

The Cowboys (1972) by John Williams

John Williams is a great film composer, as exemplified in this piece.  This is music for a movie called The Cowboys with John Wayne, arranged for band by Jim Curnow.  It's a very good arrangement, very challenging, probably the hardest piece we'll be playing, and the longest.

The music gives you a sense of the film's story--life on the ranch, the wide open plains, horses galloping, the cattle drive.  There are a couple of reflective passages that suggest night, with the cowboys sitting around the fire.  Mostly it's very exciting and very tuneful, as is all of John Williams' film music.

Second Suite for Military Band op 28 no. 2 by Gustav Holst 
 1. March: Morris Dance, Swansea Town, Claudy Banks
 2. Song Without Words: "I'll Love My Love"
 3. Song of the Blacksmith
4. Fantasia on the Dargason

We did part of this in our first concert this semester--now we're doing the entire suite. A unique feature of this performance is that we are going to include a small group of singers performing five or six of the folk songs that Holst used in composing the suite.  The idea is to give the audience a sense of what inspired him in writing this suite.

His First Suite for Military Band is sometimes referred to as a folk song type of suite but in fact it is not based on any real folk songs.  But in this Second Suite he used pre-existing sources: established folk songs familiar to everyone in 1911, when he wrote this piece.

This is considered one of the greatest band pieces ever. It’s also one of the earliest written expressly for wind band.

Variations on a Korean Folk Song (1965) by John Barnes Chance

This classic work is based on a very well-known Korean folk song, "Arirang."  John Barnes Chance didn't live long enough to write very much music, but he wrote several pieces that made significant contributions to the wind band repertoire: Incantations and Dance, Elegy and these variations.

This piece has several unique qualities.  Chance makes extensive use of percussion, and uses unusual percussion instruments, particularly the temple blocks.  They are prominently featured.  Even though the temple blocks do not have definite pitches, Chance treats the instrument like a melodic instrument.

These variations cast the original folk song in many different guises, sort of like a character being dressed up in several different costumes in the same play.  So we think we understand the tune when we hear the slow version of it played in the extreme low register by the clarinets at the beginning.  But we find it has a whole different character when lots of brass and percussion are involved, and the tempo gets very fast.  It's really a masterwork, and enjoyable to listen to because it has that unifying element of the folk song.

Shadow Rituals (2006) by Robert Markowski

This is a very exciting piece, and another one that uses an array of percussion.  This piece includes tam tam, suspended cymbals, slapstick, tambourines, bongos, glockenspiel, sleigh bells, cabasa, tom-tom, wind chimes, as well as snare drum and bass drum.  So he's really striving for lots of different colors and textures.

This is a prize-winning composition--it took first place in the Frank Ticheli Composition Contest.  Markowski is a very young composer, and surprisingly does not have a composition degree, does not even have a music degree, but he’s very facile writer, he understands how to write for the instruments.  He writes about this piece: "Shadow Rituals is rhythmic, energetic and challenges the performer to constantly stay engaged in the music.  This piece is a dark and mystical dance, a reflection of something primitive or ancient."

Night Dances (1995) by Bruce Yurko

This piece has a mysterious quality.  It eventually gets very fast and spirited--there's a marking used several times, con spirito, used for the fast-accented passages--but there are also some very reflective sections.  One of these is at the very beginning.  The music seems to grow out of nowhere, with only the percussion playing.  There are two tympani, tenor and bass drums and other, mostly mallet percussion that play this very mysterious kind of melody.  Then the woodwinds come in very softly, echoing the same melody initiated by the mallet instruments.

Then suddenly it's con spirito, very exciting passages featuring the brass.  We have a terrific brass section this semester, so it's fun for them to really show what they can do.

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