One presumes that, for a large group of wind players, the repertoire contains several standards, familiar pieces that players have performed at some time in their careers, perhaps more than once. But these pieces are not the same as a Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, or a Tchaikovsky "Nutcracker Suite," or a Mozart piano concerto. Instead, they might be something like American composer Morton Gould's Symphony for Band, or perhaps Richard Wagner's"Trauersinfonie," and when you attend a concert by a large wind ensemble, this is the kind of programming you get: music a bit out of the concert hall mainstream, music that can be challenging for both players and audience members alike. Such was the case with the first concert of the fall season by the East Carolina University Symphonic Band and Wind Ensemble, two separate groups of about 50 players each who performed Sept. 25 at Wright Auditorium on campus.
The Symphonic Band, directed by Chris Knighten, opened the program with “Nitro,” a brief, energetic fanfare (2006) by Frank Ticheli, that started out sounding like a bit of Gershwin’s traffic music from “An American in Paris” and also recalled before it ended a bit of John Adams’ “Short Ride in a Fast Machine.” The ensemble playing was good throughout, especially in the clarinets as they were echoed by the lower horns.
Wagner was represented by the "Trauersinfonie," a piece he wrote in 1844 to mark the reburial of Carl Maria von Weber. Drawn from some of Weber's music from Euryanthe, the piece has a dark and somber mood, as befitting its initial performance as part of a torchlight procession. Here one could detect a bit of shakiness in the clarinets, but the brass sounded fine, especially in a crescendo passage. The piece was well played, but given the composer and the occasion for its composition, a bit underwhelming.
Jacques Press' "Wedding Dance" is a joyful, vibrant piece that easily could have come from Fiddler on the Roof. The initial theme in the woodwinds was picked up later in the brass and included nice punctuation passages from a xylophone.
In the second half of the program, the Wind Ensemble, directed by Scott Carter, blended Percy Grainger with contemporary composer Augusta Read Thomas, while concluding with two pieces that marked the 150th anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Military Academy.
Grainger's "Lads of Wamphray" emphasizes various reeds in many sections, but the low horns also shone in their brief interludes as well. The piece has a martial sound (it is often called "The Lads of Wamphray March") but also has nice dance-like rhythms, blending melody lines with a syncopated cadence.
Augusta Read Thomas' "Magneticfireflies," on the other hand, could have been part of the score of a Twilight Zone episode. After a solo trumpet opening, the piece builds in tension, but not without the creation of some images of the night, reminiscent of the hum of insects. Thomas, who has served as composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, employs chimes and even gives the lowest brass (tuba or euphonium) a chance to shine.
The final two works were drawn from music specially commissioned for the 150th anniversary of the founding of the U.S. Military Academy in the early 1950s — Charles Cushing's ""Angel Camp" and Morton Gould's Symphony for Band. The former is a set of eight variations on an old hymn tune, led off by the voices of the wind ensemble, who sang the simple melody in unison. A wide variety of instrumental sounds followed, some of them complex enough to almost camouflage the original melody line.
Gould's two-movement symphony ("Epitaphs" and "Marches") includes reference to "Dies Irae" in the opening section, but it is an eerie take indeed on that familiar melody. This is somber stuff, much more serious than, say, Charles Ives, though the second movement does have at least a lighter opening, boosted by chimes. Three sections of brass exchanged a theme in the second movement, moving nicely from trombones to French horns to trumpet, and then joined by the lowest brass. The closing sounded a bit like a cavalry charge. On only the rarest occasions, did the ensembles sound too reedy (some might say "hoot-y"). The attacks, blend, and intonation generally were first-rate, and the players showed firm command of the material.
A vast repertoire of works for symphonic band and wind ensembles — not transcriptions of familiar works from orchestral into band pieces, but original music composed specifically for that instrumentation — awaits audiences who venture to concerts by groups such as these ECU ensembles. One is likely to hear interesting, even difficult, pieces from several different eras, which will provide a nice contrast to the more traditional programming often heard in orchestral performances.