The Carolina Band Festival and Conductors' Conference has long drawn the best of the best in the world of the wind band. This year proved no different. There was some phenomenal music making, and once again UNCG's high musical standards were upheld. This Aycock Auditorium concert showed off two of the finest wind bands in North Carolina, and both met their conductors' vision equally.
Kevin Geraldi and the UNCG Symphonic Band got the evening rolling with Frank Ticheli's "Nitro." This three-and-a-half minute romp for band was a surefire attention getter for the nearly full auditorium, and the trombones were the stars of this particular part of the show. It also set the bar for the high energy that would persist throughout the evening. I had to praise the ensemble for the excellent precision of their attacks – very, very crisp and professional!
Next up on the program was Mark Camphouse's Two American Canvases, led by the composer. I must make special mention of the captivating English horn and flute solos in the first movement of the piece. It is plainly obvious that the School of Music has outstanding woodwind faculty, as this was and is constantly reflected in the playing of its students. This composition presented a very interesting mix of the searingly disonant (in the outer edges of the piece) and (at its core) starkly contrasting consonance. It was quite easy to picture two snapshots of Americana – a restaurant in Greenwich Village and a speech by Franklin Roosevelt. The second movement was similar to the first in its use of woodwind solos, this time in the form of an oboe and alto saxophone. Again, there was some very fine work on the part of the solo players; I look forward to hearing them in concert again.
Something that is always a real treat to hear is a faculty soloist featured with an ensemble. In this case, it was Dennis Askew, instructor of tuba, playing Alan Vizzutti's Cityscape, with Geraldi leading the performance. Cast in three movements, it is a concerto in all but name. This composition is interesting in its balance between solo and band in that both are equal in their contributions. Of course, the tuba playing was of the first order, but attention must be pointed to the percussionists, who handled some very difficult music with the utmost of concentration and skill, especially the vibraphonist. Very, very well done! The work conveyed very nicely the pulsing energy of a city, and the audience warmly applauded the music.
Last up on the Symphonic Band's portion of the program was John Mackey's Aurora Awakes. Geraldi led the work. Mackey's program notes indicate that the work is a musical depiction of the Roman goddess of dawn bringing the first light of the day to the world. The piece starts off with a quiet rising theme in the clarinets, from contrabass to soprano. Again the woodwinds on many occasions were the stars of the show. This composition was the highlight of the evening, in my opinion. Over its eleven-minute duration, the work went through many gorgeous combinations of key and color, and the last chord was incredibly thrilling to hear. The audience almost immediately rose to their feet at the conclusion, and every bit of applause was fully deserved. The UNCG Symphonic Band has grown exponentially in capability and technique over the last couple of years, and I see them going nowhere but up. One could see on Geraldi's face just how proud he was of them.
Following intermission, the UNCG Wind Ensemble came on stage. This band has long been UNCG's premiere musical ensemble, and they have a long list of credentials and places that they've played, dating back 20 years, was printed the program. The performance that they gave was of the very highest quality, even though the programming itself could have been a bit more varied.
John Locke kicked off this second half with William Schuman's "Circus Overture."This ten minute piece is certainly evocative of The Big Top – boisterous brass and percussion dominated the bulk of this rip snorter of a work. Works like this that perfectly show off this band – high on thrill and volume – but leave something to want in term emotion and nuance.
Mark Camphouse returned to the podium for his composition Reminiscences, a well-crafted elegy to a friend. This five minute work contained the life and vigor that the program notes said that the man possessed. Like his preceding piece, it was full of odd dissonance at its outer edges and gorgeous sounds at its middle. My attention was held far more in this work, largely due to its comparative brevity.
Next up was Daniel Kallman's Metamorphosis on an Original Cakewalk, led by Eugene Corporon. This was the high point of the Wind Ensemble portion of the concert. I found myself on the edge of my seat, trying to guess what would come next. Theme-and-variation pieces are always very intriguing; it was interesting to hear this technique applied to a traditional American folk dance. Kallman succeeded wonderfully, and it was obvious that the ensemble enjoyed playing his work. Special mention must be made of the xylophone player, who provided an excellent foundation in the middle section for the rest of the band.
An old standard of the repertoire is played at this special concert every year, and this time the piece was Percy Grainger's setting of "Irish Tune from County Derry," directed by Edward Lisk. Grainger's folk song settings are to the wind band repertoire what Beethoven's symphonies are to orchestras – excellent, sturdy pieces of music that will be played as long as there are bands. This performance was soaringly beautiful as Lisk and the band gave it the treatment its deserves, playing it to the hilt for its perfect simplicity; especially throughout the middle of the work the band made some very glorious noises. I found myself very moved at its conclusion, and the piece was warmly received.
Locke directed the last work, Joseph Turrin's "High Flight,"a tribute to American volunteers who flew alongside the Spanish in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39. I expected great soaring melodies and soaring upward motions of sound, but this piece was quite the opposite. Turrin worked within a compositional method of scurrying figures and snatches of repeated half phrases. I kept waiting for the work to develop a significant amount of substance. Kudos to the band for playing this piece, as it is technically very difficult, but it never really went anywhere, and I found my attention starting to wander about halfway through the fifteen minute composition. This "High Flight" never quite achieved lift off.
The Carolina Band Festival concert was fully up to the expectations of everyone in attendance. If there's anything like a star studded gala of conductors for the wind band, this is it. I look forward to next year to hear what wonderful music is brought out for the occasion.