A Dallas Wind Symphony concert is always an unusual experience. The one they presented on April 23 at the Meyerson Symphony Center was no exception. This time, it was mostly music originally written for a wind band. It is to Music Director Jerry Junkin’s credit that we get to hear the extraordinarily rich range of music written for his group by composers that are unfamiliar to symphony goers.
Having said that, the first two pieces on the program were contrary to that assertion.
Peter Mennin, who was the head of Juilliard for decades, is one of the GICC (Great Ignored Contemporary Composers), although he pops up from time to time on programs and is popular with classical music geeks. His Canzona, which opened the program, only confirms his reputation as a fine composer. Pertro Mascagni, and his one hit-wonder of an opera, Cavalleria rusticana, is widely known. The intermezzo from this opera is one of the most performed pieces in the repertoire.
Mennin’s piece was a wondrous study in layers of music. It was always very busy but that action would step into the background to let a melodic fragment soar overhead. Junkin did a terrific job of managing the layers, bringing out one and then the other. Canzona is a perfect program opener, in that it is both full-out exciting and has a lot going on to hear. It was written in 1951 for Edwin Franko Goldman and his band.
An aside: The Goldman Band was one of the first of the professional concert wind ensembles in the country and spawned all of them today, including the DWS. Goldman’s band played their first concert in 1920 and only closed shop because of a bitter and protracted labor dispute in 2005. The sticking point was with the musician’s union was about reducing the count of 65 players to 60. In an effort to save those five jobs, everyone lost theirs. You can see the last bitter missive from the players here. While it was in operation, the Goldman Band was responsible for commissioning many of the works that are now standard in the canon—Mennin’s Canzona is a perfect example.
The arrangement of the intermezzo from Cavalleria, Lawrence Odom, didn’t work so well. It was originally written for strings at the octave paying the memorable melody, accompanied by the harp. The problem with the wind transcription is that, unlike strings, these players have to breathe. This interrupted the seamless nature of the tune, including one unfortunate breath before the last note of the phrase right at the beginning. The addition of organ was a nice touch. The always-wonderful Mary Preston kept the shamefully neglected Lay Family Organ in a supporting role.
Composer John Mackey graces the program of wind symphonies around the country, including the one in Dallas. His Harvest Concerto for Trombone was given a rousing performance by trombone deity Joe Alessi, who is the principal trombonist in the New York Philharmonic. It was written for him and you can read my review of that concert here.
On this program was his Drum Music: Concerto for Percussion and Wind Ensemble. Once again, this is a concerto, this time for a solo percussionist. It was commissioned for percussionist Eric Willie by a group of organizations that were organized by Joseph Hermann from Tennessee Tech University and included The University of Texas at Austin. Willie is on the faculty of Tennessee Tech.
Junkin gave some live program notes informing us that the first movement would be techno rock and the last full out rock ’n’ roll. However, it all sounded more like big band music. Of course, rock is not my specialty (to say the least) but MacKay’s concerto is, thankfully, much tamer than what is playing today on the radio.
The soloist was Thomas Burritt, a distinguished percussionist, who is on the faculty of one of the other commissioning organizations, The University of Texas at Austin. He is so young-looking you could easily mistake him for a grad student. In this piece, Burritt moved easily between an array of instruments from ones that are pitched, such as the marimba and vibraphone, to ones that you beat silly with sticks and mallets.
The first movement had a lot of charm as he played the pitched instruments, sometimes clicking his sticks on the side as well as together. Bursts of music shot up like fountain jets. The second movement featured the sustaining quality of the vibraphone and consisted mainly of non-traditional arpeggios with long held sonorities in the band. In this movement, Mackay was no friend of the horn section in this work. First horn had to enter on notes near the top of their range, which is always a dangerous proposal. The player, unknown because the horns are listed in the program without identifying the principal, did a tenuous job of it, succeeding more than Mackay deserved.
The last movement saw Burritt move to a trap set in the back of the ensemble, which was a shame. If it was out in front of the band, we could have seen his fast and furious stick work much better. This movement opened with (probably) the first ever cadenza for bass drum, an unturned thud of an instrument usually used to make big moments bigger. The score tells the percussionist to improvise and Burritt, in spite of the limited range of the instrument, did a surprisingly fine job.
Overall, Mackay’s music is enjoyable and interesting, full of unexpected turns (although some of them sound like errors in the parts). The concerto could have made use of more percussion instruments, as many other such pieces do, because there is such a wild range of things to hit to create colorful sounds.
Junkin took a break to give the organization’s 2013 Legendary Bandmaster Award to Dr. Ralph Mills, who, among a very long list of credits, was Professor of Music, Director of Bands and Chairman of the Instrumental Division of Music at Sam Houston State University from 1963 to his retirement. He may have needed help to get on stage and up on the podium, but he didn’t need any help conducting a crisp and sensitive reading of the Black Horse Troop March by John Phillips Sousa.
The last work on the program was the Symphony No. 4 by David Maslanka. Junkin gave it quite a buildup, in an overly long but informative speech before hand, so much was expected. Further, Junkin conducted the premiere of this symphony in 1994 at the Texas Music Educators Association convention in San Antonio with the University of Texas at Austin Symphonic Wind Ensemble.
The program notes tell us that the composer incorporated the hymn tunes “Old Hundredth,” “Only Trust in God to Guide You” and “Christ Who Makes Us Holy.” He then makes the non sequitur statement that: “To explain the presence of these hymns, at least in part, and to hint at the life of the symphony, I must say something about my long-time fascinations with Abraham Lincoln.
While Maslanka tries to tie this to a vague universality at the end of this program notes, perhaps the Lincoln analogy is apropos. Lincoln, who was suspected of agnosticism or (worse) atheism for most of his life, constantly used Christian references and quotes to make his point and to rally the states behind him. Many modern scholars disagree and say that the President, who was raised in a strict ultra-conservative Baptist household, was a man of deep faith. Whatever is true about that, Maslanka’s symphony does the same thing. He takes Christian tunes to make his musical point in the same way Lincoln did.
The composer makes substantial use of the organ, piano and harp. His musical language is basically tonal. He skillfully incorporates the full range of the band, with some sections being in the highest treble instruments and others at the bottom. The wallowing sax was a bit of an intrusion, more nightclub than sanctuary. That tune sounded much better when the horn played it later on. Maslanka uses lots of percussion, but why not? “Old Hundredth” imparted its forthright glory most of the time but sounded trivial when it was used as a speeded up and sectionalize fugal tune. But, the biggest problem with this piece is that it is too loud, especially at the end.
Surely, the composer didn’t mark the last 10 minutes or so Tutte Forza e Molto Loudo Extremeo fffffff. Also surely, there were sections that quieted somewhat from the din to offer some respite and give the music the ability to move towards an ultimate goal. No, in this performance, the last section of the last movement was unrelentingly super loud right to the last chord, which got even louder (although I wouldn’t have thought it possible).
You have to lay this fault for this on Junkin’s shoulders. In the last series of concerts, he demonstrates a worrisome penchant to go for the loudest sounds possible. This only reinforces the impression that the general public has of a wind symphony as a barely tamed marching band with blaring brass and piercing winds accompanied by an earsplitting drumline. Admirers of wind symphonies, including this writer, know that this is not the case. We wince when we hear deafening performances. Admittedly, symphony orchestras can overplay as well, and critics let them hear about it when they do, but even in the biggest moments they don’t achieve the decibel level that Junkin did at the end of Maslanka’s symphony.
There is little else to say, because it was impossible to hear what was actually going on. Three treble gongs that were bashed repeatedly, like cage fighters going for the kill, were the biggest culprits to the ear-numbing experience, but Junkin encouraged the overplaying from all with apparent relish.
If my ears were ringing as I left, I could only wonder about the effect of this clamor on the players on the stage, or even on Junkin himself.