A bright early-fall afternoon waited outside North Carolina State University's Stewart Theater after the Triangle Wind Ensemble's concert. Sunlight streaming through the Talley Student Center's glass doors boosted my unexpected good mood as fellow audience members filed down the stairs. I had been pleasantly surprised by the concert I'd just heard, and my head was still swimming with a dreamy post-performance glow of satisfaction.
Reality rudely stepped in and jerked me out of my reverie.
"I miss the strings," I overheard a woman say to her companion. The comment was a caveat to a positive assessment of the performance. But the implication of that statement carried more weight than she may have realized.
The public – and some professional and pre-professional musicians – view participation in wind band and wind band repertoire as inferior to that of the orchestra. We associate orchestra with compositional greats like Beethoven and Brahms; breathtaking film soundtracks from the likes of Ennio Morricone and John Williams; and four-year-old violin prodigies. We associate band with unidimensional marches, shticky halftime performances at football games, and memories of being (or ridiculing) "band geeks."
It's as if wind ensemble can't outgrow a kind of perpetual adolescence: Excluded from more populist forms of involvement in music – garage bands, singing in church choir – it is not considered mature enough as a genre to deserve the kind of artistic power and high standards supposedly espoused by the symphony orchestra. It's the Molly Ringwald of classical music.
Ex-band geeks, take heart! If I've learned anything from '80s teen comedies, it's that a dab of lip gloss and a cute new outfit can transform a gawky, misunderstood outcast into a trend-setting beauty in less time than it takes to say "makeover montage." A revamped reputation and a little extra confidence is exactly what wind band needs to earn its rightful status as a versatile, sophisticated ensemble whose performance standards and innovation in repertoire are at the forefront of classical music today. In North Carolina, the Triangle Wind Ensemble leads the way with exceptional performance standards and varied, demanding programming.
Robert C. Hunter, a quiet dynamo of a conductor who also serves as Director of Bands at William G. Enloe High School and Resident Conductor with the Triangle Brass Band, currently leads the Triangle Wind Ensemble, which has existed since 1999. Membership is by audition, and repertoire consists of canonical and contemporary wind band music. Sunday's concert showed how the dedication and creative energy of one of the best non-professional ensembles in the area has paid off.
While a little overlong, this concert's program emphasized the band's stylistic versatility and energetic attention to detail. The band breezed through John Zdechik's Celebrations to one of the more innovative works of the afternoon, W. Frances McBeth's Of Sailors and Whales. Each of Whales' movements is linked to a character from Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick – Ishmael, Queequeg, Father Mapple, Captain Ahab, and the eponymous white whale, respectively. The first movement set a somber, guarded tone with deep-stacked chords of dark, full-band sound; the second featured exposed sections and emphasized contrasting dynamics. The third, which required chant-like singing from the band, detracted from the piece conceptually: Instrumentalists, regardless of their talent, aren't going to sound as good singing as they do playing.
The fourth and fifth movements made up for this compositional slip. "Ahab" opened with ominous low brass and a timpani ostinato evocative of relentless drumbeats marking time for rowers on a slave ship. Tempestuous ensemble impacts formed wavelike sound-shapes, although the otherwise graceful piccolo's sibilance was a little distracting at one moment. I wanted a little more from the tuba section during the final movement's climax: If there were ever an opportunity for tubists to go all-out in terms of unrelenting sonic power, it would be while evoking the world's largest animate organism.
The first half closed with Steven Bryant's moody, nebulous "Dusk" and Part I of Alfred Reed's primary contribution to the wind ensemble repertoire, Armenian Dances. Although the ensemble executed their music well, "Dusk" and "Celebrations" added almost nothing to the program. The heady, complex selections by Reed, Clifton Williams, Gordon Jacob, Fisher Tull, and Dmitri Shostakovich were more than enough in terms of duration and content.
Williams' "Festival" started the second half, its initial dissonant fanfares dissolving into an orderly lyrical section. When the fanfare theme returned to close the piece, the tubas redeemed themselves, supporting stentorian low brass descending lines accented by horn rips. The horn section impressed throughout the concert: Spot-on blend and balance, dynamic versatility, and sound as dark and rich as chocolate frosting – the section's solid execution of demanding music was thrilling to hear.
An Original Suite for Military Band by Jacob and Tull's "Sketches on a Tudor Psalm" provided the woodwinds with a chance to show off athletic technical playing and richness of tone. Suite's bold, bittersweet harmonies layered clarinet underneath a supple alto sax solo, and on "Sketches," saxophone, oboe, bassoon, and horn traded the spotlight after an introductory backdrop of gauzy vibraphone. At this point, most of the musicians had probably lost the feeling in their lips, but the finale performance of Shostakovich's rousing "Folk Dances" showed no signs of fatigue.
The status of wind band in America is rising, and groups like the Triangle Wind Ensemble prove it. If these are amateur musicians in the real sense of the word, the future looks promising. Today's middle school and high-school music students who may choose band for fun, creativity, or a sense of community are tomorrow's audiences, donors, and amateur musicians. They will be true supporters of the arts.