It is possible that a new decibel level record for a concert in the Meyerson Symphony Center was set on March 23. The Dallas Wind Symphony ventured into crescendo after crescendo with more and more instruments until the last selection, as an encore, until the unsurpassable record was reached.
The impetus for all of this was the visit of Joe Alessi, the Principal Trombonist with the New York Philharmonic. In Tromboneland, Alessi is a deity. He is also one of the few trombonists who regularly plays concerti with orchestras and wind bands. However, it is still a rare occurrence to be able to hear him. The Dallas Symphony’s audience would be well served if the DSO brought him sometime. So, almost every trombonist in town was there. More about that later.
Another aspect of wind symphony concerts is that they have their own composers, names that are unfamiliar with symphony goers. Why this is the case is a mystery, but the wall between the repertoires doesn’t seem to be permeable. This is certainly not because these are second-rate composers, either.
Two of the composers on the program were in attendance.
The “dean of wind band composers,” Ron Nelson, was represented by two works. Nelson was on the faculty of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island since 1956. He was chairman of that music department from 1963 to 1973 and retired as Professor Emeritus in 1993. We heard two of his compositions.
The other composer in attendance was John Mackay, who writes in a great variety of genre with an accent on music for wind symphony and dance. He holds a Master of Music degree from Juilliard in 1997, where he studied with John Corigliano. Since then, he has moved around a lot: To Los Angeles in 2005, then to Austin in 2008 and then Cambridge, Mass in 2011 in order for his wife to attend graduate school. In 2004, the Dallas Symphony, under Andrew Litton, performed his “Redline Tango” in both Dallas and Vail.
Mackay’s Harvest Concerto for Trombone was the centerpiece of the program. It was dedicated to Alessi and the trombonist gave it a magnificent performance. Mackay said that he tried to evoke the legends of Dionysius, the god of wine and revelry. It is certainly true that the percussion section reveled. They perilously beat on everything in the battery, even using the hammer blow from Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, which would have been more surprising if we had not just heard it in it original setting. The din paused occasionally to let the trombone sing out. And sing out he did. Alessi has a remarkable tone, creamy but still brassy, and he was equally at home with Mackay’s jazzy riffs and his virtuoso passages.
Another surprising highlight of the concert was a bandistration of the second movement of Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata, bandistrated by Richard E. Thurston. If you didn’t know it, you would think that this was the original form of the composition. In some ways, it was even more effective. Ives’ collection of well-known tunes sounded marvelous. Being more spread out sonically, Ives’ prickly harmonies and melodic confluences, sounded much less dissonant than with the more limited and percussion piano. Although it may not work was well as this, it would be interesting to hear the other two movements of the sonata in a similar treatment.
Morton Gould was the quintessential American Musician. He was a composer of music for everything from symphony to Broadway. He was also an activist for American music, serving as the president of ASCAP from 1986 until 1994. His American Salute is probably one of the most easily recognized compositions in the repertoire—in either its band or orchestral version. It is a set of variations on the tune “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and it is amazingly skillfully written. The DWS gave it a whizbang performance and audience members around the hall were tapping their toes.
Alessi returned to play Eric Cook’s Bolivar!, which was evocative of South American rhythms and harmonies. Cook is relatively unknown: a Google search only turned up this one composition. However, it was quite interesting and Alessi gave it a sympathetic performance.
Ron Nelson’s Sonoran Desert Holiday opened the concert. Nelson was student of Howard Hanson and his teacher’s influence, with a sprinkle of Copland, was evident. It is an effective evocation of natural scenery. His work Epiphanies, which closed the concert, was much different. Tone clusters and complex harmonies crowded out Hanson’s niceties. Some improvised, aleatoric sections created a wall of squirming sound. The brass and percussion had a lot to do and the astoundingly loud climax was the loudest sounds ever made in the Meyerson. Or so we thought.
With the encore, Musical Director Jerry Junkin, who is one of the best conductors in town, reached the Everest of sonic summits. With Alessi here, he programmed “76 Trombones” from The Music Man. This piece is loud and brassy by itself, but Junkin filled all of the aisles and every empty space in the Meyerson with hundreds of trombonists to play it. Every single one of them played at top volume, as did the DWS from the stage.
Was it effective? Sure. Was it fun? Absolutely. But my ears were ringing for about 10 minutes when it was over.