Dallas — On Tuesday, as the inaugural concert of its 30th season, the Dallas Winds presented a program of three transcriptions of pieces by Italian composer Ottorino Respighi: Fountains of Rome, The Pines of Rome, and Roman Festivals at the Meyerson Symphony Center. In what was also a revisitation of their 10th anniversary concert—although with some different arrangements, if I'm not mistaken—the group performed these three full-body workouts for wind band, transcriptions of standards of the orchestral repertoire, and thereby challenged themselves and their audience to see these arrangements as rethinkings of the originals; not just secondary, derivative retoolings of well-known pieces.
Let's call it “the problem of the transcription”: how to take the material presented in the orchestral original and rework it so as to create the impression that it had originally been intended for wind ensemble. Compounding the challenge is that each of the three works has, for lack of a better term, sine qua non moments, memorable bits that define the work and make or break a presentation, leaving listeners either exhilarated or disappointed—and Tuesday's concert certainly had both.
Fountains opened the program, in a transcription by “Fred Junkin,” which I suspect is an arrangement by the Dallas Winds' conductor, Jerry F. Junkin. Forgive me, Fred, if I have you mixed up with someone else, but your re-scoring probably provoked fewer extreme reactions from Respighi devotees than either of the other two; the old saying that an orchestra can't match a wind ensemble's fortissimo, while a wind band can't match an orchestra's pianissimo may account for any complaints.
A couple of important solos were swallowed up by the texture, and the “Fountain of Trevi” section, instead of rising imperceptibly out of the preceding “Triton” section, seemed to march in. But in general, the work was as exciting as ever, swelling to a couple of huge climaxes, while beginning and ending delicately.
Pines, the second work on the first half of the program, was presented in an arrangement by Jacco Nefs, and had the fewest balance problems of any of the three. The massive buildup in the “Appian Way” section is beautifully scored—and the same might be said of all of the other “big money” moments. This arrangement comes across as a true rethinking of the piece in wind band terms. Sure, the woodwind trills under the nightingale's song are a little louder than the strings are in the orchestral version, but they didn't drown it out. The only complaint about the performance is that some of the details of the opening section—the muted trumpets, particularly—were lost in the complex fabric.
Festivals. Ah yes, the festivals, possibly the most complicated of the three scores, and definitely the most problematic arrangement. It did provide new insight into some of the weird harmonies at the beginning of the exquisite mandolin solo in the “October Harvest” section. On the other hand, many defining moments in the work simply failed to show up. The lions at the Circus Maximus? The audience could certainly see the trombones playing something, but these are supposed to be lions driven crazy with hunger—and these are trombones, for heaven's sake (all right, so they got louder later).
And while the appropriately shrill introduction of the final section by the E-flat clarinet promised big things to come, some important—and heretofore prominent—details were missing: we had to strain to hear the first trombone's “drunk” solo, and the trumpets’ shouting at each other over the rest of the ensemble might as well have been a secret. Listeners who were really concentrating could tell that the notes were in there somewhere, but that's not how it’s supposed to work. It's supposed to sound dangerous, as if it’s about to fly apart.
Conductor Junkin stated at the outset that the program was ordered so as to produce a giant crescendo over the course of the three works. I should stress that 90 percent of the problems with Tuesday's concert probably stemmed from the arrangements, as the quality of the playing was higher than ever (Don Fabian and his alto saxophone: may they both live to be a 100). It might have worked better to start with those innocuous Festivals and end with the killer Pines: give us a crescendo in the quality of the arrangements; let’s see how that works.