Saturday, October 10, 2015

Concert Notes: Symphonic Band

Edited from an interview with Symphonic Band Director Paul Cummings

Mother Earth: A Fanfare by David Maslanka 

The composer quotes St. Francis of Assisi: "Praised be you my Lord for our Sister/Mother Earth, who nourishes us and teaches us, bringing forth all kinds of fruits and colored flowers and herbs."

This is a very exciting, high energy piece but very challenging because of the fast tempo and the unrelenting forward momentum. If you get lost in the music as a player you get left in the dust.  It was commissioned by the South Dearborn High School Band of Aurora, Indiana.  They must be a very good group, because it's definitely college level material.  It's a good fanfare that gets everybody playing, with lots of brass.

Don Ricardo by Gabriel Musella

This has the traditional musical mannerisms that would accompany a Spanish pasodoble dance. It's very much like a march in its construction--an opening section that's very consistent in tempo, followed by a trio halfway through with a change of key, and a very different, more lyrical and songlike section that takes us to the end.

 It's really authentic Spanish music, rather than being stylized.  It's got a lot of the rhythmic and lyrical elements of the pasodoble--you can picture Spanish dancers enjoying this music as it's being played.  There's a lot of variety: full band passages with just about everybody involved, and in the trio it is very thinly textured, more like chamber music.

Earl of Oxford March from the William Byrd Suite

William Byrd was an early English composer who was active in the sixteenth century.  He lived during the time England was torn between its allegiance to Roman Catholicism and the nascent Anglican church. So loyalties were very much divided, political strife was everywhere, especially during the reign of Henry VIII. Byrd was a devoted Catholic who increasingly ran into trouble because of the Reformation and the Anglican church wanting to do away with everything from the Vatican, including the Latin Mass and the sacraments.

Gordon Jacob, an early 20th century British composer who was very interested in musicology and history, found a collection of music by Elizabethan composers called the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book.  It collected not only Byrd but a lot of his contemporaries, with music mostly written for the English virginal, a smaller version of the harpsichord.  This is the primary manuscript source for English music of the period.

Jacob extracted pieces by Byrd and collected them in the six movements of the William Byrd Suite.  We're playing the first movement, the Earl of Oxford March. It's a good example of a slow British march, the antithesis of an American, John Phillip Sousa style march.  It's rather subdued, doesn't have a fast tempo and it's very lyrical, with a lot of different instruments involved in the melodic and thematic presentation.  Whereas in a Sousa march you have certain instrument groups that are always playing afterbeats, like French horns, and other instrument groups are always playing the melody, and other instrument groups always playing the baseline, so the roles are pretty strictly defined.  But there's tremendous variety in the Earl of Oxford March.  It's almost the anti-march.

NITRO for Concert Band by Frank Ticheli

Frank Ticheli is one of the most prominent contemporary composers for wind band in America--he's acquired an international renown at this point in his career.  This is a fairly recent piece—2006—super high energy, only 3 minutes long, commissioned by the North Shore Concert Band of Chicago to celebrate its 50th season.  It may be the most famous band in America.

Ticheli writes: “Nitrgogen is the most abundant component of the Earth's atmosphere—78% by volume—and is present in every living thing. The sheer prevalence of nitrogen in all of nature, and the infinite range of compounds it is part of,  all appeal to me and serve as the inspiration for my music. The main musical idea for Nitro is a powerful angular theme first announced by trombones and horns and then imitated in the trumpets, trumpet fanfare call, and a busy and relentless chattering of the woodwinds enhance the bright festive mood."

So it's bright festive, fast, exciting-- and short. It's also full of meter changes—in one passage, consecutive measures go from 4/4 to 8/8 to 3/4/ to 8/8/ back to 3/4 and later 5/8, 4/4 and so on. In this piece Ticheli seems to defy listeners impulse to tap their feet. The downbeat is constantly changing.

 I like Ticheli's writing in part because he understands the characteristics of wind instruments so well—he understands what they're capable of doing, especially from a technical standpoint, and the players enjoy that type of idiomatic writing—music that just fits the instrument.

Sheltering Sky by John Mackey

This is a very slow, expressive piece that also employs changing meter. In this context, with the slow tempo the meter changes are very disguised—it's hard to tell when they happen.

Mackey some exotic sounds and timbres, for example at the beginning there's a marimba solo along with a single clarinet that sets the stage for an alto sax solo.

It's a very quiet opening, but the piece builds to a big climax, as is typical of Mackey's music. He’s a very melodically-oriented composer—there's always some lyrical line to follow,  and one of the challenges in playing his music is to make sure that line is not obscured. He employs a lot of counterpoint, which is lovely and adds great complexity and variety to the music, but it's risky from the standpoint that it can obscure the main musical line at any given moment.

So it is a simple, slow piece—but simple only in technical terms. The challenges are more aesthetic, and involve careful listening among the players. After that big climax in the middle, it unwinds to a very soft peaceful ending similar to the beginning.

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