Dallas — One of the gifts that the Dallas music scene offers is two exceptionally fine professional orchestras made up of wind, brass and percussion instruments. One of them is the long-established Dallas Winds and the other is Lone Star Wind Orchestra, which is led by music director Eugene Corporon. The latter is the subject of this review, disguised as an essay.
Their season opener transpired at Dallas’ Moody Performance Hall on Sept. 22, a program curated in honor of 400 years of African-American history and its transformational influence on the music of the world. The program, named “Amen! Gospel Reflection,” featured music inspired by music that permeates the black church: gospel, spirituals and hymns.
While there were some flaws here and there, the performance by the LSWO was a fantastic way to kick off the season.
Right from the start — meaning the period of warm-up and tuning long before before the conductor takes the stand — the LSWO’s careful attention to intonation became apparent. Getting, and keeping, that many different instruments in tune with each other is a daunting endeavor. This is a special problem for wind orchestras in that they are a combination of instruments divided into two camps. There are those built on the overtone series of the B-flat fundamental, and those built on C-natural.
So, wind ensembles usually get two different tuning notes — C and B-flat — to accommodate both tonal levels. Getting all of the instruments in tune with each other is a tedious but a rewarding process.
Frequently, right after the first chair oboe/clarinet gives the tuning note, you hear a glancing effort to match it followed by the white noise of everyone loudly playing different music; even well-known concerto excerpts float above the din.
This was not the case here.
Once the tones were given, the players worked quietly to get their instruments adjusted and then stopped noodling so that others could have some quiet to finish.
Hearing this method of tuning a large ensemble helps a critic to form their opinions. It says a lot about the seriousness of the players — you at least know they began in tune with each other.
Wind orchestras have their own universe of composers who rarely cross over to the repertoire of symphony orchestras, and vice-versa, except in bandistration versions. Thus, when attending a wind concert for the first time, symphony goers find themselves at a loss for identifying and evaluating the style and craft of the unknown composers. I cannot think of another set of similar music performance organizations that don’t share a common library of musical masterpieces that incorporate a variety of technical challenges.
Given the African-American theme of the concert, Corporon invited two special guests. One was the superb actress Denise Lee, bringing some carefully chosen and closely related poetry before each selection. Her interpretations brought fresh understanding to the words of luminaries from Michelle Obama to Maya Angelou.
The other guest artist was the singer Alfrelynn Roberts, who possesses a stunningly beautiful and impeccably trained voice that is even from top to bottom. Pair this with instinctual technical mastery and finely honed musicianship and you have found a rare combination akin to a five-leaf clover. Incidentally, she is the Chorus Master for the Fort Worth Opera and the director of the South Dallas Concert Choir — all the while teaching voice at five Dallas high schools.
As a conductor, Corporon is the opposite of today’s showboating maestri that inhabit modern-day orchestral podia and swoon audiences. He is all business and conducts within a modest frame without a hint of Lenny-light flash. He is helpful to the players when needed, musically expressive in every movement, aware of the overall architecture, and in the spreading his accurate sense of inspiration to all involved — from tuba to piccolo.
The program started out with two movements, beginning with the third followed by the first, from a multi-movement work entitled “Southern Harmony” by Donald Grantham that featured narration by Denise Lee. Here, Lee’s acting ability was on full display.
The title comes from an 1835 popular songbook of the same name by William "Singin' Billy" Walker. It is a collection of familiar hymns, revival songs and religiously oriented folk tunes that were popular at the time.
The songs in the book are notated in “shaped notes,” a system of musical notation developed in the late 18th century to teach sight singing to those without any musical training (or education in general for that matter.) The pitches are identified by their note shape, rather than the familiar do-re-mi method (solfeggio).
Here is a page duplicated from the 1854 edition of “Southern Harmony.”
Grantham’s piece uses the tunes from the publication and also the rustic harmonies employed at the time. This includes open intervals, parallel motion, modal harmonies and even gives the pentatonic scale an airing. All this collection of sounds that require getting use to and quite different to the modern ear. We are accustomed to the fourth-right, and Bach influenced the style of songs in hymnals that still hang on the backs of church pews.
Thus, this nostalgic trip down “Southern Harmony Lane” recreates the distinctive sound of shaped notes singing, congregational singing, even with the use of rhythmic hand clapping. The overall quality of this Grantham work shows a distinctive voice in his bandistration for the ensemble. He creates a sound for the wind band that doesn’t sound like an orchestral hand-me-down.
These two pieces were certainty brass-heavy. He isn’t afraid to give the trombones and the brass section in general some bold writing, a chancy move even in orchestral composition. However, the brass never dominates unless specifically asked to do so. I would venture to guess that this phenomenon is due to the composer’s skill, assisted by Corporon’s keen ear for balance and the professionalism of the players. Orchestral music could benefit from such a combination.
Composer Dwayne Milburn’s “American Hymnsong Suite” followed. There are four movements based on familiar hymn tunes: Prelude on Wondrous Love, Ballad on Balm in Gilead, Scherzo on Nettleton, and March on Wilson. Corporon’s cart-then-horse programming continued as he opened the suite with the final movement.
Like the previous selection, Milburn’s suite is also firmly rooted in a churchy harmonic language. He moves us up in time from shape notes to the familiar 20th century hymnbook harmony based on Bach’s vertical four-part chorale writing via Martin Luther. Milburn seasons this storied heritage with modern chord progressions and mixed rhythms plucked from jazz, big band, blues, barbershop and a splash of Carl W. Stalling’s whimsical vocabulary developed for Looney Tunes in the early 20th century. There is even a hint of Klezmer in his use of solo instruments. The end result is “kaleidoscopic music,” rather than the homogenized “band” sound you might expect.
Before intermission, we heard James M. David’s intriguingly titled “Ghost of the Old Year.” The composer states that this recent work grew out of his “…sense of unease about the state of the world and particularly the Southern U.S., where I grew up.”
Denise Lee returned to offer some narration and it engendered a surprising realization. Her reading of Maya Angelou’s poem, channeling Paul Laurence Dunbar’s words, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” was revelatory. Her reading transcended the mere words, much like the painter Mark Rothko did with buckets of paint.
In the same manner as Grantham’s borrowing from “Southern Harmony,” David’s atmospheric piece is based on “Beach Spring,” a tune dating back to 1844 collection titled “The Sacred Harp.”
Here, we have another original use of the flexibility of wind orchestra. While unabashedly allowing his musical ancestors to speak up, David has cobbled together a work that is completely different from its antecedents. David treats the wind orchestra not as an ensemble as much as a collection of virtuosic individual instrumentalists.
The result of this is quite distinctive. We experience what is going on in discrete musical universes and concepts of time that phase in and out of our trifling window of comprehension. Out of a haze created by a suspended cymbal, punctuated by bells and chimes, lonesome trombone assisted by other solo wind instruments sings its sad song
The second half consisted of a single work, “Five American Gospel Songs,” by Luigi Zaninelli, and featuring soprano Alfrelynn Roberts. All of the songs should be familiar, even to non-church goers, because they have managed to transcend the religiosity of the organs to convey their meaningful messages to a much wider audience.
Roberts uses a unique approach to bandistration that divides the band into choirs of similar, or even divergent, groups that he uses as musical chess pieces. They can be team or opposing forces. Vocally, the tunes themselves are used in a straightforward manner without much in the way of variations or elaborations. This allowed Zaninelli great freedom in crafting the elaborate accompaniment for the band. His work here is full of craft. He does a fine job of keeping the strophic nature of the different verses of the hymn tunes always alive and fresh.
“Amen!” by composer Carlos Simon ended the program with a rousing musical cheer. Jazzy Big Band slide trombones opened the piece with a connotation of dim smoky clubs at closing time. But when Corporon brought it out into the daylight it exploded with joy mixed with the taste of stale cigarettes and punctuated by short dissonant and rhythmic chords, seasoned with marimba clattering, quick solos licks in the winds, and big band style brass. Sharply staccato chords use progressive jazz harmonies to keep the score very busy. When it pauses either from exhaustion or to reflect, a nervous ostinato keeps up the tension created out of constant fast Scherzo-like movement sprinkled with distinct musical events.
It didn’t seem to reflect the composer’s Pentecostal upbringing, as the program notes claimed. Its overall tone felt more like Saturday night than Sunday morning.
But it was very exciting, with the thrill of danger hanging in the atmosphere, like a runaway car on a dangerous roller coaster.