Friday, May 01, 2015

Symphonic Band: Conductor's Note

From an interview with conductor Paul Cummings:

Shortcut Home by Dana Wilson 

This piece with jazz elements in first on the program because it’s a short, super high energy piece, in the style of an overture or a fanfare. Dana Wilson is a highly regarded American composer, much in demand, who teaches at Ithaca College in New York. He’s lives in the classical music world but also in the jazz world as a musician himself, and he looks for ways to merge these two areas that we often want to separate. His music has received a lot of acclaim. This piece is loud, fast and fun.

La Fiesta Mexicana by H. Owen Reed

 Reed was a fixture at Michigan State University on the composition faculty from 1939-1976. He had a number of students who developed into composers themselves. He died just last year. He was an excellent composer who wrote for all mediums, including symphonic band. This is generally considered to be his greatest band piece.

 This is program music—it tells a story. His subtitle suggests that: A Mexican Folksong Symphony. He tells his story using a number of Mexican tunes. In the first movement, bells and fireworks call people to the cathedral square for a religious festival. They arrive to witness a midday parade and a frenzied Aztec dance. 

The bells ring again to call everyone into the cathedral for a ceremony. That’s the second movement, very slow, basically a chorale. The third movement is called “Carnival”—it’s the height of the fiesta out in the cathedral square with a traveling circus, a bullfight, a market bazaar, the town band and a mariachi group.

 This is a core work in the wind band repertoire, and it’s the longest piece on the program at about 22 minutes.

 Huapango by Jose Pablo Moncayo
 transposed for band by Leroy Osmon

Huapango is basically a perpetual motion piece—it’s got this driving relentless rhythm that hardly ever stops. There’s variation and melody but mostly it’s characterized by this driving rhythm in 6/8 time.

 It’s based on a dance--“Huapango” is a rhythmic Mexican folk dance performed on a wooden platform. It’s also the name of a festival celebrated in the state of Veracruz, where they did this dance.

 Moncayo was a 20th century Mexican pianist, percussionist and conductor as well as a composer. We feature two of our really advanced brass players—Craig Hull has a trombone solo that alternates with trumpet played by Andrew Henderson. They play back and forth, having a conversation between the trumpet and the trombone, with support from the rest of the band.

 Caccia and Chorale by Clifton Williams 

 This also is part of the core repertoire for wind ensembles. Williams was an American composer active from the 50s into the 70s. “Caccia” means a chase or a hunt. “Chorale” is a hymn.

 It does sound like it’s racing for much of the first section, the “caccia.” Even though caccia is a form of music that goes back to the Middle Ages, he is using it with specific application to the modern world. According to the composer, this section is intended to “reflect the preoccupation of most people in the world with a constant pursuit of materialism.” The chorale section “by contrast is an urgent and insistent plea for greater humanity, a return to religious or ethical concepts.”

 It’s interesting that he uses the caccia form to get that across, but you can certainly listen to the music without thinking about materialism. He also writes: “While it remains open to question whether music can convey any message other than a purely musical one, composers often tend to attempt to express philosophical, pictorial or other aspects within a musical framework.”

 The chorale is a beautiful slow hymn in which the brass and the woodwinds are often set off against each other.

 A Medley by Gregg Moore

photo: The Hum
Gregg Moore is our local World Music guru. I commissioned Greg to do some pieces that could work for our Symphonic Band. We’re using pieces he’d already written but he tweaked them a little and added some instruments to round out the instrumentation so it would work for us.

 Modern symphonic band students don’t get to do authentic World Music very much—music that has roots in indigenous music from continents other than North America. Too much of our modern wind ensemble music loses the authenticity of folk music by changing instrumentation, keys and tempos to make it "band friendly"-- more suitable to be played by a concert band in the 21st century.

 Gregg’s music often has South American roots, or from Spain and other places. There’s an upbeat flavor of his arrangements that comes from the tradition of the music originally being played outdoors in the public square, and Gregg’s band arrangements connect with the original performance medium. I think Gregg has stayed true to the origins of the music. He’s customized these pieces a bit for our band but I think the authenticity is still there—the respect for the genesis of the music—and it comes through in his arrangements.

 Gregg was kind enough to agree to perform some of his music and tweak some of it, so we’re all looking forward to doing a little medley of some of his world band music.

Chamber Winds: 
Suite for Jazz Orchestra by Dimitri Shostakovich
 Strange Humors by John Mackey 

 These pieces are on our program because we have advanced musicians that need outlets, and these are musical vehicles for our more experienced players to shine.

 Shostakovich wrote two of these suites—this is the first. I think the second is performed more often. He wrote this as a young man, in 1934 as Stalin was coming to power in Russia. Stalin’s government was looking for  music that was lighter than his great symphonies. I think this piece is a compromise to satisfy the government with something light and happy.

 Still, even though it’s pretty short and light, it shows his brilliant compositional genius—incredible harmonic modulations that you wouldn’t expect in a waltz, a polka and a foxtrot. Very unusual, creative, modern harmonic devices. So even under duress, Shostakovich and other Russian composers who didn’t want to emigrate found ways to be creative and modern.

 John Mackey’s piece is for a saxophone quartet—soprano, alto, tenor, baritone—and djembe, which is an African drum. It has to be one of the oddest combination of instruments ever. So it’s unique, but it works. The djembe sets up a groove for the melodic material by the saxes.

 John Mackey is a Julliard-trained composer, not yet 40 but getting a lot of play all over the world. He’s written orchestra and choir music but especially for band.

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