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Americans in the nineteenth century had no way to experience music except via live performance. One had to surround oneself with trained or self-taught players, or learn to play on one’s own. Having a talented amateur musician as an acquaintance could be a status asset comparable to the parlor piano, which became a must-have accessory during the post-Civil War sheet music boom. Now, formal musical instruction as a part of everyday middle-class life exists largely as school choir, band, and orchestra programs. For most kids, that involvement ends after graduation — and circumstances common to adult life, like college, careers, and families can make it difficult to maintain such an active musical life.
The amateur musicians of the Triangle Wind Ensemble, headed by Enloe High School Band Director Robert Hunter, and the Triangle Youth Brass Band’s high-school students, conducted by tubist Tony Granados, have chosen to make music a significant part of everyday life, and this performance — titled “Music for a Lifetime” — celebrates that choice. After performances by each group alone, the youth band members stood in the choir loft like a file of heralds above Meymandi’s stage for a joint performance of the March from Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser and R.B. Hall’s hymn "God of Our Fathers." The youth band’s ambitious program of energetic marches and brilliant orchestral transcriptions exhibited the rich, full unity of its ensemble sound and featured plenty of opportunities for soloists to shine. Triangle Wind Ensemble's signature asset, besides talented and dedicated personnel, is its ability to shape sound into music: the sections blend, collide, react, and compete with one another like living units, and this passion has made for some of the most thrilling wind band performances in the Triangle this season. So what if their sound doesn’t bear the seal of approval of some overpriced music school?
Both groups gave capable, often exhilarating, performances of literature ranging from Scottish folk songs to politically charged mid-century Russian orchestral works. TYBB kicked off a program of technically and stylistically demanding music with an arrangement of the Finale of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5. Starting a performance with an emotionally explosive selection like this is a little unusual :true to its title, this movement can be seen to represent a cataclysmic last battle in the ideological war between oppression and freedom — "cathartic" doesn't really begin to describe it. This was an act of pure nerve, a self-challenge, in preparation for the TYBB (and the newly created Triangle Youth Brass Ensemble) to compete at the North American Brass Band Association’s Championship in April: the Finale from Symphony No. 5 is the TYBB's self-selected competition piece, and Granados and the band made the gutsy choice to front-load the evening's substantial program with an early — but ultimately impressive — public performance.
Although the group's energy faded somewhat during the last third of the piece, they picked it up immediately to back special guest and North Carolina Symphony trumpeter Don Eagle on U.S. Marine Band arranger Stephen Bulla's "Canzone and Caprice." Eagle, who also teaches trumpet at Meredith College and Duke University, joined the TYBB with his clear, propulsive tones through flashy technical passages and choir-like lyrical sections. Next came "Death or Glory," a march by 19th-century Maine bandsman and composer R.B. Hall. This march is widely loved in Britain and, due to its quirky musicality and technical difficulty, is a popular choice for the march selection usually required in competition. Versatile Belgian composer, trombonist, and brass band member Jan Van der Roost's churchly "Canterbury Chorale" provided a few moments of somber calm and reflection before the TYBB closed their half of the concert with three sections of opera composer Giuseppe Verdi's 1873 Requiem Mass. Transcribed from four-part vocal with chorus, the starkly dark "Dies Irae," oddly introspective "Tuba mirim," and glorious "Sanctus" were a fitting conclusion to a triumphant performance for the Triangle Youth Brass Band.
The Triangle Wind Ensemble continued the concert with "Celebrations," which—although performed quite well—sounded a little inconsequential and meandering after the heavy-hitting repertoire the TYBB performed. This was a night for reexamining and vivifying canonical orchestral and band works, and the next piece, the recently-deceased composer Malcolm Arnold's band staple "Four Scottish Dances." With a figure Hunter introduced as the “Scottish snap ” —a sixteenth/dotted eighth note combination — and Celtic-sounding harmonies, this piece pirouettes through festive jigs, and dramatic runs evoke visions of the windswept heath straight out of Wuthering Heights. A stunning horn section can be difficult to come by, but the TWE's always performs at their peak; the beautiful blanket of their sound gives listeners pause no matter what the band is playing, and a piece like "Four Scottish Dances" highlights them — and woodwind soloists, and an agile oboist, in particular — like no other.
Robert Russell Bennett's complex and solo-heavy Symphonic Songs for Band took the band through brisk rhythms and another great oboe solo in its first movement, "Serenade," and then a highly dramatic slow movement, "Spiritual," in which a marshmallowy-soft euphonium solo and Gershwin-esque blue notes were featured. The finale of "Celebrations" transported the audience to the circus with bird whistles, inebriated trombone glissandi, a stack of open intervals played by saxophones, euphonium, and horns that was meant to evoke calliope, and a theme that sounded a lot like "The Old Gray Mare." If the Triangle Wind Ensemble keeps giving performances like these, they'll eclipse even professional wind orchestras in the area. The group closed their half with Vaclav Nelhybel's passionate, angular "Symphonic Movement" before the youth band joined them for the Wagner march and "God of Our Fathers."
Although both programs relied on classic pieces, like the orchestral transcriptions and band staples, and complex aural journeys like the Verdi and Bennett selections rather than pops or other recognizable tunes, any audience member could have felt the emotional energy coming from the performers, teenaged and middle-aged, onstage. There’s more to being a musician than acing auditions and hacking at orchestral excerpts for hours each day. While the members of Triangle Youth Brass Band and Triangle Wind Ensemble may never receive a paycheck for their services, they have the chance to revel in doing something they love, and these highly commendable performances are the fruit of their dedication to this art. Call them amateurs, but in the true sense of the word; they do what they love, and the vibrancy and enthusiasm of their performances ought to inspire listeners to do the same.
* In the interest of full disclosure, the author, a low brass specialist, maintains contact with the youth band, its director, and the Triangle Brass Band.