Time flies—the combined Symphony Band and Concert Band concert on Monday, April 25 at 8:00 PM in Sharp Hall is the final band concert of the 2015-16 academic year! The former presents tunes by Philip Sparke, David Maslanka, and Steven Bryant (recently composer-in-residence at OU), and the latter opens with what you might call “contest music.” Here are the details.
The Concert Band, directed by Brian Britt and Brian Wolfe, accepts all students who want to play in a concert band, auditioning only for seat position and part division. It’s designed (and perfect) for the students who just enjoy playing in an ensemble. The five tunes on the program are:
- Appalachian Overture by James Barnes (1984), an overture in A-B-A format where the B-section melody “is reminiscent of the sort of folk melody prevalent in the American southeast, where the Appalachian Mountains are located.” The publisher adds, “This energetic piece appears on many state required lists.”
- An Unending Legacy by Barry Milner (2008)…OK, you can read the program notes on this if you like, but the big part starts with the equivalent of “The dictionary defines ‘legacy’ as…” and we’ve all seen this on The Simpsons. Let’s rather think of this as an archetypal work for school bands—intended to let the students think about whose legacy impacts their lives, with a beautiful and appreciable melody, lush scoring, and an almost-soundtrack like feel in certain moments. It’s a grade 3 piece, but like so many of those, the artistry comes from the intonation and the blending of sounds, not from an abundance of notes. Listen on YouTube if you need more of an idea.
- Scenes of Wonder by Mark Williams (1994) is a three-movement work inspired by, in order, Stonehenge (“Rock solid style” with “intricate harmonies”), The Louvre (in “an impressionistic style” with many solo passages), and Fiesta de Pamplona (the Running of the Bulls, “a rollicking paso doble in 5/4 time”).
- A Night in Tunisia, the famous Dizzy Gillespie tune made even more famous in Charlie Parker’s version, is featured in this 2012 Paul Murtha arrangement as a saxophone section feature.
- Ruckus by Randall Standridge (2014). According to the publisher, “The dictionary defines ‘ruckus’ as a…” OMG really? Do they think band directors don’t have dictionaries? Let’s skip past that to “Loud, boisterous, aggressive and mixed meter, heavy percussion and thumping rhythm give this piece a decidedly urban feel.” At the link, click on the preview pages and you’ll get the chance to listen and page through the score—and I’d take issue with “decidedly urban” because it makes me think of “Mission: Impossible but more fun.” Effective use of mixed meter, good rhythmic pulse—everyone should like this one!
Under the direction of Dr. Michael Hancock, the Symphony Band is a 50-piece higher-level performing group where membership itself depends on audition, programming more challenging pieces typically heard in more advanced settings (all-state bands, colleges, maybe some very good high schools). The Symphony Band has programmed three pieces by well-known contemporary wind composers:
- Dance Movements by Philip Sparke (1995). Although you can read more on the individual movements at the link, the composer offers an excellent overview:
- Mother Earth, a three-minute fanfare by David Maslanka (2003). I have always found it difficult to describe Maslanka’s work with words, and you might feel the same way after reading some of his writing like this. Nonetheless, when he writes of Mother Earth, “Each piece takes on a reason for being all its own, and Mother Earth is no exception. It became an urgent message from Our Mother to treat her more kindly!” I think that’s pretty easy to understand. Listening to it (and following a perusal score at the link, but scroll fast—it’s one beat per measure!) I can easily imagine the Earth rebelling—volcanic eruptions, icebergs crashing into the ocean, floods washing away everything in their paths, hurricanes reforming shorelines. It’s heavy material for a three-minute fanfare, and a composer of lesser ability might make a hopeless muddle of it. Not Maslanka.
- Ecstatic Waters by Steven Bryant (2008). With Bryant as composer-in-residence the week before this concert, you can be sure he advised the Symphony Band on what he himself calls his “seminal work [that] has become one of the most performed works of its kind in the world, receiving over 250 performances in its first five seasons.” The composer’s summary:
Ecstatic Waters is music of dialectical tension – a juxtaposition of contradictory or opposing musical and extra-musical elements and an attempt to resolve them. The five connected movements hint at a narrative that touches upon naiveté, divination, fanaticism, post-human possibilities, anarchy, order, and the Jungian collective unconscious. Or, as I have described it more colloquially: W.B. Yeats meets Ray Kurzweil in the Matrix.
The overall title, as well as “Ceremony of Innocence” and “Spiritus Mundi” are taken from poetry of Yeats (“News for the Delphic Oracle,” and “The Second Coming”), and his personal, idiosyncratic mythology and symbolism of spiraling chaos and looming apocalypse figured prominently in the genesis of the work. Yet in a nod to the piece’s structural reality – as a hybrid of electronics and living players – Ecstatic Waters also references the confrontation of unruly humanity with the order of the machine, as well as the potential of a post-human synthesis, in ways inspired by Kurzweil.
The piece is scored for “wind ensemble + electronics,” and the technology involved is nontrivial, which would make me even happier to have the composer’s help. There are five movements:
I. Ceremony of Innocence II. Augurs III. The Generous Wrath of Simple Men IV. The Loving Machinery of Justice V. Spiritus Mundi
Much like the Wind Symphony’s April 18 performance of Bryant’s Concerto for Wind Ensemble, this is advanced-level music that requires considerable skill from conductor and ensemble, but is entirely enjoyable. When the composer says movement I is about “exuberant joy,” you can feel it. Your pulse can quicken at the “forceful anger of a chorale” in the third movement, and you’re ready for it after the second movement showed “the unsustainable nature of the previous Ceremony.” The electronics do more than add nonphysical instruments—they modify the sound of a clarinet in real time, adding an almost tactile sensation to the onstage performance. This is the kind of music that some of always hoped bands could reach for and grasp.
It is cast in four movements which play without a break; the second and third feature woodwinds and brass respectively.
In many respects, the circumstances of the commission itself were the musical inspiration for the piece: I had been asked to write for a very large band, which included piano and harp. It was the first time I had used these instruments in a concert band score and (as in Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements) their presence coloured the score and, indeed, the type of music I wrote.
The four movements are all dance-inspired, although no specific dance rhythms are used. The first has a Latin American feel and uses xylophone, cabasa, tambourine and wood block to give local colour. The second woodwind movement uses a tune that had been plaguing me for some time and is, I suppose, in the style of an English country dance. The brass movement was composed without a specific dance analogy, but I think it can been seen as a love duet in classical ballet. The fourth and longest movement has, I hope, cured me of a ten-year fascination, almost obsession, with the music of Leonard Bernstein and I will readily admit that it owes its existence to the fantastic dance music in West Side Story.
(Who among us does not like West Side Story?)
The concert is free for everyone, and begins at 8:00 PM on April 25 in Sharp Hall, located in Catlett Music Center on the OU Campus. Bring your friends and neighbors (who appreciate music); heck, bring your high school band but contact the Band Department first for logistics help. See you there!