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The highly anticipated concert by the Duke Wind Symphony with conductor John R. Guptill, now in his second year at the University, was scheduled for the South Lawn of the Sarah P. Duke Gardens on April 10 at 2:00 p.m. Special guests were the Triangle Tuba Quartet (Paul Gramann and Bob Hale, euphonia, and Jack Denniston and Irv Eisen, tubas).
At 2:30 p.m., as I entered the gardens, the Wind Symphony struck up a fanfare to which I marched privately down the garden path with a cane I had taken along just in case. The terrain behind the green hedge that separated me from the South Lawn was negotiable but the distance was a potential challenge for this senior writer. Parking was more of a problem than I had expected, and I had not allowed enough time. Members of the Duke community were very hospitable in giving directions, and after much driving, I found a nearby place. I include all this because no one should find it daunting to attend outdoor concerts in this natural amphitheater.
The delightful fanfare must have been from the American Symphonette by Morton Gould, and the second theme was apparently the first movement of his American Symphonette II . What I heard was jazz, familiar yet unnamed, that displayed cumbersome handling of the melody by the brasses but a delightfully lighter treatment by the reeds. A second rendition of the same piece was wild and freewheeling and provided a nice, light touch. The poster program was not available until after the concert, the titles being shown to the part of the audience directly in front of the bandstand area, so to speak. Once or twice, the conductor remembered to hold the title placard aloft and turn 360 degrees but he moved too quickly for it to be read. A large number of scattered family groups had turned out. They did not completely cover the grassy slope, but I opted for the shade of a clump of tall rhododendron on the little hillside. The fanfare and march were absolutely delightful, played with a clarity of tone that drifted upward towards the audience without the benefit of a shell or any apparent amplification. Families continued to arrive informally and took their places on the lawn during the program.
I missed the prelude and a second selection by the Triangle Tuba Quartet, and the tubas lay in the grass alongside the little symphony grouping, an impressive sight nevertheless. During the course of the afternoon, four seniors were asked to stand while they were given special thanks for their dedication to the success of the group, having set a high standard for those who follow, according to the poster. There was also an "Ugly Tie Contest" which if I remember correctly from the 1980s, the last time I had attended one of these concerts, must be an annual event. Guptill dedicated the program to Sergeant First Class Richard J. Guptill, tubist and "King of Oom", and to the members of his National Guard unit, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 230th Combat Support Battalion, currently serving in Iraq.
The musicians played in direct sunlight; the conductor refreshed himself with bottled water. Audience participation was the name of the game during the "Victory Bell March" (a.k.a. "Liberty Bell"). I suspect they played the "Liberty Bell" March and renamed it "Victory Bell" March since they thought they would have the bell. There is not, as far as I know -- without access to program notes -- a "Victory Bell" March by John Philip Sousa. The poster said it would feature the Duke/UNC Victory Bell, but alas it was announced that it proved immovable from its position on campus, so human voices in chorus shouted BONG from the crowd, on cue from the conductor.
Composer Charles Ives created the "Country Band" March from the sounds he heard coming from bandstands on village greens in New England before they were taken over by present-day sophisticated gazebo concerts or rock bands at the other end of the spectrum. Echoes of my childhood memories of such New England bands presented themselves quite clearly. Before it was played, Guptill carefully announced, "It is supposed to sound like this!" The reason, he explained, is that Ives used "four or five keys, four or five songs and four or five meters." At times, we heard the flutes in 5, the clarinets in 2, the brass in 4, and other instruments in 3 and 6. "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and other tunes from the colonial music library emerge indistinctly but quite delightfully.
The final programmed number, Frank Tichell's "Vesuvius," brought tremendous applause. Appropriately, the work begins with a soft theme, a virtual calm before the storm, and proceeds through little explosions, boiling into larger ones; the conclusion is punctuated by percussion. After the lengthy applause, the conductor said, "Would you like to hear one more really cheesy song?" and then led the musicians in "Blues for a Killed Cat"; wailing instruments joined by aircraft overhead mourned the cat in style. The 2005 concert promises to be another wonderful happening.
When the performance was over, it was possible to see the posted program, which began with E. E. Bagley's "National Emblem" March and included selections from Peter Warlock's Capriol Suite (arr. Beeler), Gareth Wood's "Japanese Slumber Song," and G.H. Huffine's "'Them Basses" March.
Guptill says he was brought in two years ago to develop a significant wind symphony. It will be interesting to see whether its repertoire will include classics such as Handel's Water Music Suite, which I think I remember from the Allan H. Bone wind instrument era at Duke. To the ears of a classical music devotee, the selections and the general intonation of instruments in the part of the program that I heard were slightly disappointing, considering the vast repertoire for wind instruments. I look forward to attending the annual Gardens concert next year to see how the ensemble grows under Guptill's tutelage.