Dallas — Is your concept of a band left over from high school, half-time at football games or maybe the Rose Parade? If so, you have an amazing treat in store when you attend a concert presented by the Dallas Winds, a fully professional wind symphony that performs a season of nine concerts at the Meyerson Symphony Center.
The group’s season-opening concert on Tuesday was particularly impressive, with some challenging masterpieces played with solid technique and intonation combined with exceptional musicianship.
Wind bands frequently feature composers who mostly write for such ensembles and thus their names are not familiar to concertgoers, but it was the opposite on Tuesday. Except for a rollicking opening number by Ron Nelson, who is quite well known in the band world, all of the other composers on the program are universally celebrated: Percy Grainger, Zoltán Kodály and Richard Wagner.
Wind symphonies lack the extensive repertoire that a symphony orchestra, with its outsized string section, enjoys, although this is changing rapidly as composers discover the capabilities of a professional wind ensemble.
Percy Grainger’s name may not sound familiar, unless you remember playing “Country Gardens” as a beginning piano student. However, the Australian-American musician was celebrated as a composer and concert pianist during his lifetime (1882-1961), which spanned a revolutionary period in musical composition: from Brahms to Stravinsky and beyond.
The first piece of Grainger’s is something completely different from his other output. It is a serious and contemplative tone poem, with the curious name of The Power of Rome and the Christian Heart. It was originally for symphony orchestra but rewritten by Grainger for wind band, piano and a host of percussion instruments. He also uses an organ, which is perfect for the Meyerson with its magnificent (and shamefully underutilized) Lay Family Organ with organist Mary Preston doing the honors.
Grainger was a pacifist and World War I deeply affected him and he poured his despair into this composition, which he finally finished during the even more depressing World War II. In Grainger’s mind, it also conflated with his perceived failure as a composer. Grainger said: “It is simply grouchy…grumbles at the sad condition of tyranny and torturing.”
Music Director Jerry Junkin delivered a thoughtful performance of this somber work. Considering the huge number of players Grainger requires, he was able to achieve great clarity, which allowed the listener to follow all of the mostly descending individual lines. Widely spaced and dense chords seemed to shrink down to a single note—a singularity. Junkin captured the desolation Grainger poured into this, his last composition for band.
When Grainger moved to London in 1901, he began a lifelong interest in collecting folk songs, such as the aforementioned “Country Gardens.” (Grainger moved to America in 1914 and remained until his death in 1961). Junkin presented two of Grainger’s pieces based on such folk songs and completely changed the mood.
The first, “Irish Tune from County Derry,” is better known as “Danny Boy.” Grainger’s version is, perhaps, the most beautiful rendering of this well-known tune. Junkin conducted it with smooth flowing motions, with no sharp edges, which allowed the music to pour from the band like cream from a pitcher. The last selection was up-tempo: “Shepherd’s Hey!” also on an English folk song, which has become a standard in the band literature. After all the depressing and moody music that proceeded, Junkin let the band have some fun, resulting in an energetic and joyful performance.
The second half of the program opened with a work that is well known in its original version for symphony orchestra, Zoltán Kodály’s Háry János Suite, in a brilliant arrangement for wind band by Jacco Nefs, who was in attendance from Amsterdam. In keeping with the folk-influenced music of Grainger earlier on the program, Kodály’s suite is from his folk opera of the same name. (It really should be reversed, János Háry, to be correct.)
Kodály’s score includes a Hungarian folk instrument, the cimbalom, which is like a zither on steroids. It is a trapezoid dulcimer, with four octaves of strings, played with two hammer-like beaters which hit the strings to produce the sound. Lawrence Kaplan offered a brief introduction to the instrument and its quirky string layout and then gave a marvelous performance.
Unfortunately, the wind ensemble covered some of his playing although the important passages sounded out. This is a problem with similar instruments that rely on a hammer hitting a single string, such as the harpsichord. Some subtle amplification would have brought out more of instrument’s music.
The program closed with a work by Richard Wagner that is a standard for every band from junior high to high school to professional bands: “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral from his opera Lohengrin. It is unique in that Wagner conceived it for mostly winds so it is a natural fit. Since it doesn’t really end in the opera, there is a concert ending tacked on most arrangements. Since Mary Preston was already on the program, Junkin added the immense sound of the full-out Lay Family Organ to an already ear-splitting ending.
There was only one reservation about the concert, and that is Junkin’s excessive use of the top volume level all evening. Bands are well known for playing loudly, which explains their frequent use outside in non-concert hall environs. But in the magnificent acoustics of the Meyerson, triple forte needs to be used sparingly, so that the one or two really big moments pack the requisite wallop.