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The Transylvania Symphonic Band (the high school age wind players of the summer institute) of the Brevard Music Center presented "Elemental Winds: Fire, Earth, Water, and Air" under the baton of Kraig Williams in Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium. Conductor Williams delivered an excellent commentary before each piece. He indicated that in addition to the four elements, the concert was about taking minimalist elements like sand and drops of water and building them into mountains and oceans.
These young people present a level of skill to be envied by older professional musicians the country over. This afternoon concert was a tightly-pulled-together and completely-satisfying piece of teenage professionalism.
To my ear there is something about symphonic band scores that makes them mostly sound like they were composed as exercises, with a need to treat all the instruments equally and to exploit all of the most extreme timbres of a band. With the exception of works by Handel and Mussorgsky, such was the case in this concert.
The opening piece, Brian Balmage's "Flight," juxtaposed waves of low brass against the tinkling of orchestra bells. The bells sounded like thistledown or the tinkling made by a kiln as it cools. I rate the performance a lot higher than the composition.
"After A Gentle Rain," by Anthony Iannocone, was another piece of predictable program music with three equal solos, one each for flute, oboe, and clarinet. The young first chair musicians were all a delight to hear.
"Sonoran Desert Holiday," one of Ron Nelson's Holiday series, was impressively hard, particularly for being in 5/4. The beginning was defined by the beating of what Europeans think of as a tom tom, but soon the excellently-played drums sounded less like the West and more like West Side Story.
Handel's "Fireworks Music" (composed for George II, not "King Henry" as announced) opened the second half of the program. The audience clearly did not share my disappointment in this least-well-played piece of the afternoon; I found neither the intonation nor the togetherness up to this band's standard. The Ouverture (the movements were not identified on the program, which led to a premature applause) was slow and stately, that is to say, plodding; the absence of the usual double-dotting contributed to the languorous feeling. There were excellent passages of good buzzy bassoons, assisted perhaps by the contrabassoon. Neither was the Bouree the band's best, although the bassoons continued to do yeoman's work. "La Paix" showed improvement in playing together and intonation. "La Réjouissance" was finally just barely brisk enough and just well-played enough. The Minuets began with a very uncomplicated texture, progressed a la Stokowski (in an arrangement by Jamie Hafner, who was in the audience) to involve all the instruments available, and ended with a big finish. The audience loved it.
Modest Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" came next. Williams explained this was the G-rated version of "[St. John's] Night on [the] Bare Mountain" (which is more or less the original name). The orchestra, being in on the joke, groaned politely. Mussorgsky shares with Handel a most un-band-composer-like disregard for treating all the instruments alike. Clearly both these composers desired to make the best music possible, never mind equitable time. "Bald Mountain" was a high point of good intonation in an afternoon of all-round excellent intonation. These young people really listen well.
"Lux Aurumque," by Eric Whitacre, came close to linking with Handel and Mussorgsky as a piece of music and not a showcase for every single instrument. This smooth piece gave the percussion a break and had something of the feeling of Moravian brass choirs at Christmas or Easter.
The comparison to the "Anvil Chorus" is inevitable when Charles Rochester Young's "Tempered Steel" is played, although "Tempered Steel" is less musical and more complex. The piece starts loud, with a complex repeating theme being hammered out on the chimes above a major part of the orchestra. The piece builds louder and louder, assailing the ears, until the melody of the chimes is drowned in a sea of noise. The noise abates, there are solos for trumpet and for trombone, and the roar swells again. This was the least minimalist piece of the concert, with lots of difficult rhythms woven together and managed excellently by the band.
Any disappointment I may have had over the show-off exercise nature of some of the pieces was more than compensated for by the really tight, mature performance turned out by the band, a group of excellent players whose professionalism is not intruded upon by their lack of years. Bravi!