The third concert of the semester by the UNCSA School of Music's Wind Ensemble was given in the early afternoon in sonorous Crawford Hall at a time usually reserved for the traditional Performance Hour. Over five dozen musicians, under the direction of Maestra Verena Mösenbichler-Bryant, rotated smoothly from chair to chair or into the audience, as needed by the particular piece, while a constant presence of about 50 musicians on the stage presented a varied program of band standards mixed with a couple of novelty pieces and two lovely but unfamiliar (to this writer) works by the iconic Australian composer, Percy Grainger (1882-1961).
The program immediately highlighted the differences between a wind ensemble and a symphony orchestra: first, the wind ensemble can play louder but not softer than a symphony orchestra, leading to a different use of the instrumental palette and different dynamic expectations. And second, an equal balance of high sounds with low sounds is challenging, due to the overwhelming strength of the low and mid-range instruments. Nonetheless, bands and band music have a solid and esteemed place in the world of music, and in the repertory of composers, as this performance made clear to any doubter.
The performance opened with the sparkling Overture to Candide by Leonard Bernstein (1918-90) in this transcription for winds (plus harp) which kept all the glitter and energy of the original while adding depth to the chorale-like second theme. "Colonial Song," the first of two works in one movement by Percy Grainger, in complete contrast to the Bernstein, is a slow expressive piece featuring a lovely long trumpet solo. Here intonation problems crept in, especially thirds which were too high, both in the opening solo and in the ending which conspicuously avoids the fifth of the chord, adding to the intonation dilemma. (In the original 1911 version for piano, this was an innovative effect produced by pedaling).
The prolific French composer, Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), is best remembered today for some jazz-inspired works for mixed ensembles (Le boeuf sur le toit, La création du monde, Scaramouche), some works written in Brazil where the composer lived during World War I (Saudades do Brasil) and the next work on this program, La Suite Française, Op. 248, for band, in five movements. The Suite was written with American youth in mind, and the five movements are the five French provinces where American troops fought alongside the French underground to liberate France in WWII. The Suite opens with a jaunty 6/8 tribute to Normandy using Normand folk tunes. "Bretagne," the longest of the five movements, features a plaintive, slightly polytonal oboe solo. "Île de France" (the region surrounding Paris) is a festive farandole-like dance. "Alsace-Lorraine" is slow and "saxy," well played and well shaped. "Provence," evoking Milhaud's birthplace, closes the Suite with boisterous enthusiasm including a pair of interludes for drum and fife.
"Turkey in the Straw" by Michael Markowski (b.1986) is a series of clever variations on the American folk tune by the same name, replete with slide whistle and sliding trombones and jazzy rhythms. It was introduced by Dr. Mösenbichler-Bryant as a "quirky cartoon piece," referring no doubt to the composer as a film-maker.
Percy Grainger's "Children's March" makes use of the darker colors of the wind ensemble (English horn, tenor sax, bassoons, bass clarinet) and adds the voices ("Ahhh…") of the instrumentalists to give color. The seven-minute work which is in three parts, the first repeated after a contrasting mid section, brought in by a brilliant swirl of upper woodwinds. This is one of the earliest works to incorporate the piano into the band.
The concert closed with a very brisk version of the seasonal "Sleigh Ride" by Leroy Anderson (1908-1975), composed for the Boston Pops in 1948. The fast tempo emasculated the jazzy recap of the theme, leaving it no room to swing – but otherwise it was an upbeat end to a very enjoyable concert.
A brief word about the new adjunct faculty member, Dr. Verena Mösenbichler-Bryant, who shares her time with the music department at Duke University – her conducting style is clear and energetic, cuing entrances with ballistic gestures, whereas Grainger's "Colonial Song" revealed a lovely legato beat. She may wish to sharpen her students' attention to subtleties of tuning and intonation, always a challenge to young players. Brava, Maestra!