The Charles River Wind Ensemble begins the season with a concert of works well ahead of the traditions of “band music.” In 1960 few works were explicitly designed for the wind ensemble – notable exceptions include H. Owen Reed’s La Fiesta Mexicana (1950), Paul Hindemith’s Symphony in B-flat (1951), and Vincent Persichetti’s Symphony No. 6 (1956), all of which have been featured on earlier CRWE programs.
Ingolf Dahl’s Sinfonietta of about 20 minutes’ duration has a traditional three-movement layout (1. Introduction and Rondo; 2. Pastoral Nocturne; 3. Dance Variations). Although the composer uses modern harmonies and techniques, the constant strong melodic content and references to “traditional” band-like music (such as marches and waltzes) make the work easy for audiences to enjoy. Ranging from chamber-like scoring with just a few instruments to the full ensemble, the work shows humor and lightness throughout, including a jazzy obligato for the entire clarinet section!
Julian Work was one of the first African-American composers to write music for radio and television. Calm, beautiful Autumn Walk (about 8 minutes) is unusual for early band works because of its slow tempo, quiet dynamic levels, and impressionistic transparency. At times the full ensemble expresses lush chords with close harmonies, while at other times only a few voices are heard. The entire cinematic-sounding work never rises above a mezzo-forte.
David Maslanka can truly be called a giant of wind composition. His works range from sonatas to full-length symphonies, the latter being unusual for wind bands as noted above. A Child’s Garden of Dreams (about 35 minutes) draws on five excerpts from Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols. Maslanka has written:
All composition begins below the unconscious level, and then flows up to the conscious. That is why dreams are so vitally important to pay attention to — they are an outward manifestation of messages from the inner self and provide the composer with a unique source for musical creativity.
As with so much of Maslanka’s music, the five movements present enormous contrasts, cover a complete dynamic range, and make extensive use of every sonic resource of the modern wind ensemble.
The program opens with Incantation and Dance (1963) by John Barnes Chance. While clearly representing an older style of wind band instrumentation, the work is ahead of its time, using elements of bitonality to create “a sound world mystically removed from itself.” The ethereal sound of flutes in the lowest register yields to a sustained bitonal chord as fast-tempo percussion ushers in brass calls and rhythmic thematic material, culminating in an exciting dance.
Dream Machine by Katherine Bergman (2016) completely changes the mood. Soft repetitions and alternations create hypnotic, mystical sensations, just as artist Brion Gysin's “Dreammachine” phonograph-driven stroboscope, “the first art object to be seen with the eyes closed,” is intended to affect the viewer's brain alpha wave activity. Is the dream machine the physical object, or is it within our brains?
Another complete contrast follows as composer Rolf Rudin re-creates Nemeton, the place of the cultic rituals of the Druids, and their spiritual world. After a bold introduction with long-held chords, sizzling trills, and percussion emphasis, we enter a mysterious forest clearing where we hear bird calls and the hymns of pre-Christian rituals as the Druids mediate between the old gods and the human world. Composed in 1993.
Christopher Theofanidis, well known for many orchestral compositions, approached a commission to write for winds in 2005 as an opportunity to create a novel idea of sustained sound, as if music were played in a large space, building the reverberation into the scoring. He writes that “the title for this work [I wander the world in a dream of my own making] is a reference to the compositional process. Writing a piece of music is like creating a dream that you want to have. The feeling that pervades the work is one of a sense of mystery, and this sentiment is primarily conveyed through the harmonies and orchestration.”
Our program closes with the 2012 rich symphonic setting of the history and myths of the Zenú indigenous people of northern South America. Composer Victoriano Valencia R. writes “The Zenúes stood out for the construction of a complex system of irrigation canals for their crops that worked for nearly two thousand years, until the arrival of the Spanish in 1500. The Suite is built in four movements that recount the processes of meeting races and cultures that occurred throughout the American continent. The work seeks to represent landscapes of the Sinú River region and painful scenes of the Spanish conquest process that overwhelmed the native culture.” This masterful sound-painting firmly emphasizes the composer's standing in a great tradition of Latin- and South American composers of music that represents rich cultural history.
Sometimes we forget that the great European tradition isn’t the only source of wonderful music. That holds true for original compositions for wind ensemble (or, as often called outside the U.S., “wind orchestra”). This program features two works by Japanese composers, one by the Chinese Dr. Chen, and two works by Western composers inspired by themes of the Orient.
The Charles River Wind Ensemble doesn’t typically play marches, but Orient et Occident, Op. 25 by Camille Saint-Saëns (1835 - 1921) is no typical march! It was composed in 1869 for a gala evening of the Union Centrale des Beaux-Arts, which was concerned with the relationship of art and industry and featured an exhibition of oriental art. This was an era in which upper-class Europeans were fascinated with all things chinoise and japonaise. Starting as a traditional grand march, the piece soon loses momentum and arrives at a questioning pause. There follows a sinuous melody in 3/4 time (yes: slow waltz tempo in a march!), with tied notes demarcated by rapid turns and mordants, somewhat as bagpipe players must do because the wind cannot be interrupted. Light scoring, pentatonic frills, and ornaments from snare drum, cymbals, and triangles complete this somewhat derivative depiction of sounds of the “Orient.” Back in slow march tempo, a fugue begins - a fugue, in a march! Truly it is no typical march! Themes are developed and reprised, growing in intensity to an accelerating finish. This was an original work for band; Saint-Saëns did not re-score it for orchestra until 47 years later.
Composer Chen Yi (1953 - ) provides the following program note for Dragon Rhyme (premiered in 2010): “Dragon Rhyme for symphonic band is in two movements: I. Mysteriously-Harmoniously, and II. Energetically. The first movement is lyrical, and the second powerful. Featuring the basic intervals found in Beijing Opera music, the thematic material in both movements is matched, and used economically for development throughout the work. The instrumental texture is rich in colors, from transparent and delicate to angular and strong. Taking the image of the dragon, which is auspicious, fresh, and vivid, the music is layered and multidimensional. It symbolizes Eastern culture. When it meets the world, it becomes a part of the global family.”
Dr. Chen also supplied further description: “Dragon Rhyme for symphonic band is cast in two movements. You will hear that the thematic material found in each movement is related and consists of the basic intervals found in Beijing opera music. The instrumental textures within this piece range from transparent and delicate, to angular and strong. This variety is meant to spark the image of a dragon, which is auspicious, fresh, and vivid, and results in music that is layered and multidimensional -- similar to the Eastern culture.”
Under the guidance of parents who loved Western classical music, Chen studied piano and violin from an early age. But under Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), she was sent to the country and required to play approved “revolutionary songs” for local farmers. At age 17 she became concertmaster of the Peking Opera. Later she earned a DMA with distinction from Columbia University. She and composer husband Zhou Long are professors of music at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
The world of music for concert band and wind ensemble in Japan didn’t really begin to take shape until the 1950s and 1960s. Visiting groups such as the U.S. Army Band began to introduce the genre, and the Yamaha Corporation started manufacturing higher quality wind instruments in about 1965. These influences led to the creation of many school bands. Organized competitions spurred increasing competence of these groups and created demand for music to play. Many works were created for a specific ensemble, and not generally shared. Early competition winners often were scores that could accompany movies (including animé) and even video games, and there is a rich (if somewhat unknown) literature in these genres.
Eiji Suzuki's (1965 - ) Life Variations Op. 50 represents this programmatic music, with three continuous movements entitled Birth and Death, Poem of Ecstasy and Song of Love. It's a colorful, dramatic, melodic and rhythmic work with contrasting tempo and character, ending in the gorgeous final Song of Love. As part of the inspiration for this work, the composer quotes Yoko Ono: “From the perspective of the earth and the universe, human history is still in its infancy. Right now, there are many threats to humankind, but I think we are still experimenting with various things during our infancy. I firmly believe that human beings never go in a strange direction.”
John Barnes Chance (1932 - 1972) composed the opening piece of CRWE’s March program (see below), Incantation and Dance. During his service in South Korea with the Eighth U.S. Army Band, he encountered the folk song “Arirang” which is the theme of Variations on a Korean Folk Song. It is based on a concert A-flat major pentatonic scale, and is developed through five contrasting variations in its 13-minute duration. Chance is an important figure in the brief history of the modern wind band, having written for school players of various levels, using more varied and interesting percussion effects than had been customary. His life was ended far too early, at just age 39, by a home accident.
We close today’s program with another exploration of the picturesque and programmatic aspect of Japanese composition. Masamichi Amano, composer of Aurora, is described (in a web site about Japanese music for visual arts and games) as “a classically trained composer and arranger for Japanese media and the concert hall [... h]e writes in a style of orchestral music that is a mix of 20th Century Film music and 20th Century modern concert music, often focusing on a full brass sound with complex orchestration.” The version CRWE is playing is excerpted from a larger composition called the 9th Symphonic Suite, a 1-1/2 hour computer graphics animation. The setting is 4200m under the sea in 2033. Mankind seeks natural resources, which are being depleted, from oil hidden in the mantle under the seabed. However, in the mantle, super-corrosive ancient bacteria that explode in response to oxygen were dormant. The plot includes a scientist who plans to use the resources for his own interests, a heroine who tries to stop it, and drilling engineers who face the fear and danger from the surging bacteria. And a life-threatening escape... . The six sections from the original soundtrack are titled 1. Deep Sea, 2. Crush, 3. Prophecy, 4. Escapes, 5. Earthly, and 6. Main Theme. If the latter makes one think of “Star Wars” just a little, it’s not totally amiss - Amano’s music has great melodic and harmonic effects, and is certainly cinematic in nature.