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On a beautiful spring evening, an audience assembled (after competing toe-to-toe with a softball game for parking) for the final concert of the season by the NCSU Wind Ensemble, ably led by long-time conductor Dr. Paul Garcia. The last concert of any school year is a touch wistful for the several students who will be graduating, and this was no exception. For many people, music-making in college is the peak artistic experience of their lives; that is especially true for a school like NCSU, where all the students are majoring in other fields.
The first work on the program was the only non-programmatic music, Fantasia for Band, by Vittorio Giannini, written in 1963. Giannini is best known for founding the NC School of the Arts and leading it until his untimely death in 1966. He was a relatively prolific composer, especially considering his other duties as composition teacher at Juilliard, Curtis, and the Manhattan School of Music ‒ not a shabby resumé by any means. This was also the music most contemporary in style of the evening, although it is hardly radical; it is mostly Neoromantic. Still, there are moments of dissonance. That started early with an opening having some rather blatty brass. There were no memorable melodies and, like most music of its time, it seemed aimless. The students played well and made the most of the material at hand, but we did get an idea of why Giannini's music is not often heard, outside of five band pieces from late in his life (like this one).
Next was a very short work, "Chasing Sunlight," by Cait Nishimura. While there is an intended program to the music, depicting "the warmth and radiance of the sun low in the sky," as we all know, music is abstract. Had the program read that it depicted "the majesty of life on the Great Barrier Reef" no one would have been able to tell the difference. Nishimura, born in 1991, is a Canadian composer who won the 2017 Canadian Band Association Composition Competition with this little piece. Her style she describes (in the third person) as having a "refreshing buoyancy," using minimalist patterns, and "simple yet lush harmonies." These are generous self-assessments that actually gain credence in our age where surface appearances are most important. Many people seek music that does not require anything of the listener, especially attention span. Her harmonic structures are straight from your church hymnal, tried and true since 1600, and her melodies are not, as she claims, ones to "linger in listener's minds." The taste of any reviewer is of no importance. However, it is the duty of a critic to defend a certain minimum of intellectual integrity in concert music, and this most certainly did not pass the test. Her website reflects the current age's concentration on slick packaging and freedom from any depth of thought or feeling. As a result, she is doing quite well, thank you very much. (Perhaps I ask too much of a composer so young, but then I remember Schubert, and weep.) The band members had an easy go with this music and played it well; it is an advantage of this style that musicians don't need to put in much effort.
Third on the program was the "big note" of the evening; Garcia mentioned from the stage why it was not performed last, but I couldn't catch what he said. Whatever the reason was, it was certainly a rare moment to see Pines of Rome, by Ottorino Respighi, programmed anywhere but at the end of the show, given the huge ending. This orchestral warhorse is one of the most popular pieces of the early 20th century, and for many reasons. The melodies are solid and well-suited to the instrumentation, the orchestration is masterful, and the harmonic language is well within the average concertgoer's comfort level. The original version for large orchestra is a good pick to arrange for band, especially in the loud parts; this was done quite skillfully by Guy Duker.
The wind ensemble certainly had its work cut out for it with this one, especially the horns, who handled the extreme ranges required of them quite well. The transcription, and thus the performance, was most effective and convincing in the first and last of the four movements, where the winds, brass, and percussion dominate in the original. The soft parts really require the more delicate touch of strings. Some of the extreme high and low notes need violins and double basses to pull off effectively; piccolos and tubas do not suffice at soft dynamics. The rousing finale was extraordinary, and it was a shame not to have it at the end as usual. This was a tough, tough act to follow.
To give the tired musicians a bit of a rest, there followed four short pieces for various chamber ensembles. First came the Carmen Prelude by Georges Bizet, arranged for three flutes, bass flute, piccolo, and marimba. Somehow flutes don't quite evoke a bullfight, but you do what you can. Next was a saxophone quartet, a clever and fast piece, with the title and composer announced from the stage somewhat inaudibly. Much as in past years when I caught band concerts at NCSU, the saxophones demonstrated the most advanced technique of any of the performers in the concert.
Then there was a clarinet choir, again announced from the stage in a whisper by the principal clarinetist. (People! Speak up!) It was entertaining to see a contrabass clarinet in action, although I rather wish it were the kind powered by propane. Finally, there was a woodwind quintet by Malcom Arnold, always a favorite composer for wind and brass musicians. It was a folksy, bouncy little selection, well played.
The wind ensemble assembled again, rested, for the premiere of "Carolina," by NCSU student composer Noah Baldwin. He hails from Mooresville, where he played trombone in middle and high school bands. Now majoring in design studies, he plays only from time to time, but he has composed since high school. With this piece, he won the 2018 Arts NC State Creative Artist Award. He is entirely self-taught as a composer, which gives some advantages and some disadvantages. This piece is at a very moderate tempo, and he keeps the texture relatively simple. While the harmonic language is tonal, it is not excessively conventional and tired, as is so often the case. This was a promising beginner's work, well worth the performance. I had a chance to speak with him after the concert, and I encouraged him to find a way to study more formally. It is probable that he'll enjoy life and music most by keeping his composing on the side, but it will be more satisfying to do it at the highest level of competence he can manage. That will require sweat, score study, and years of labor, not to mention money. We'll see how this works out.
Finally, the evening ended with "Elsa's Procession to the Cathedral" from Lohengrin by Richard Wagner. This comes at the beginning of the fourth scene at the end of Act II, at which point the typical opera audience has straining bladders from the pre-show champagne and thus stays awake. This transcription by Lucien Cailliet was a touch on the turgid side, but then that's faithful to the original. It was a bit of a snooze compared to Pines of Rome, but then it is the way of all things Teutonic to go on a bit long, even in a brief excerpt.
All in all, this was a fine ending to the school year, and here's looking forward to a fresh start in the fall. Kudos to the many students.