This season, members and fans of the North Carolina Wind Orchestra marked a triumphant milestone for the organization and for the Triangle's growing classical scene. The 10-year Anniversary Concert, held at the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts' Meymandi Concert Hall, showed the impressive extent to which the NCWO's performers, conductor, and artistic ethos have developed since the group's inception. A program including canonical transcriptions, genre-bending Americana, high-profile contemporary works, and underplayed rarities hinted at the ensemble's high standards. But the evening's polished yet emotionally vibrant performance affirmed the status to which the NCWO has risen over the past decade.
Artistic Director and Conductor Michael Votta — whose talent and professionalism have influenced community ensembles, professional groups, and student musicians around the Triangle for years — led the orchestra through five selections that marked the peculiar and often-overlooked canon of wind ensemble music. Although arrangements of orchestral music, opera selections, and marches have long been valued by the musicians who played them, "true" wind ensemble music is composed specifically for a group of around 30 or more woodwinds, brass, and percussion. Because this trend, spurred on by wind ensemble directors at the nation's most prestigious universities and conservatories, didn't emerge until mid-20th century, music composed for wind band often bears the vitality and somewhat experimental nature of a new genre of classical music still maturing.
The opening piece, "Festive Overture," Dmitri Shostakovich's mighty fanfare-cum-celebratory dance, has been adopted by wind and percussion players as a classic that's also exhilarating to perform (despite it being transcribed from the original orchestral score). The piece's bright, silvery swaths of brass and then scintillating woodwind flourishes imbued the evening with excitement and classy sentimentality. "Festive Overture" and its follower on the program, Richard Wagner's for-winds-only processional "Trauermusik," were performed on the NCWO's first concert in 1996. The first half closed with the inky sound swaths of Christopher Theofanidis' 2005 "I Wander ina Dream of My Own Making," a delicately throbbing nebula of tone clusters commissioned by a consortium of the nation's top college band directors that included Votta.
The ensemble began the second half with a nod to another twentieth-century titan. Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait," a meditation on the sixteenth president's tragic fate and historical legacy as well as the cultural and political context in which he lived, hasn't been canonized among the composer's quintessentially American-sounding works such as "Appalachian Spring," but the piece is notable for its use of spoken narration compiled from Lincoln's statements and speeches, here performed by WRAL newscaster Gerald Owens, and musical quotes from Civil War-era popular tunes and war songs. Although this and many of Copland's better-known works were originally written for orchestra, the composer's astounding ability so effectively to evoke American-ness through music ties his work to the wind ensemble genre: wind bands were a new world breed of music, and the development of the first groups was one of the first non-imported musical movements in America.
The NCWO's reverent dulcet melodies formed transcendental soundscapes meant to evoke a certain era. However, the concert's finale, the rarely remembered Jules Strens' 1929 "Danse Funambluesque," indicated the ensemble's excitement for high-quality performance and envelope-pushing art music. The performance of this "acrobatic dance" darted and swayed with a cobra's merciless precision, transfixing the audience with vertiginous rhythms, queasy intervals, and gasp-inducing interjections. While the concert was well performed and the repertoire appropriately relevant, the NCWO's performance of "Danse" blew the rest of the program away — and demonstrated stylistic vitality and high standards of execution that foreshadowed many more seasons of high-quality music making from this group.