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Conductor Michael Dodds, artist-professor at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, introduced the Wind Ensemble concert to the small audience at Stevens Center stating that the four works on the "hour-long" concert might be likened to "Earth, Water, Fire and Air." The four dozen musicians on stage, all wind, brass and percussion, augmented at times by a pair of double basses, harp, piano and organ, are all highly skilled performance majors, in contrast to most universities, where majors range from musicology to music education, with the performance majors being a decidedly smaller portion of the whole.
This concert assaulted the listener from the very beginning – the BIG BANG that opens Frank Ticheli's "WILD NIGHTS!" stays with us long into the piece, lingering through the ostinato (obstinate) repeated figures, the parallel sixths, and the seemingly perpetual motion of the mallet instruments. The final chord arrived on time, as one might have predicted, but ironically in the "wrong" key! And between the opening and closing chords, boundless energy gave meaning to the title and to the passionate poem evoking the sea by Emily Dickinson which has inspired so many.
Artist faculty member Tadeu Coelho is a virtuoso flutist who has recorded extensively and has appeared in these pages before. Accompanied by a slightly smaller formation, he played the Rhapsody for Flute by Stephen Bulla, who for thirty years was the chief arranger for the US Marine Band. This work was a perfect vehicle to highlight the gorgeous tone and vibrato of Mr. Coelho; the composer used the tuba in a very low register to offset the high sweet sounds of the flute, and later the piccolo. After a cadenza over soft chords, the work ended in a very light-hearted manner.
A premiere is always exciting, and doubly so when the composer is on the faculty! Lawrence Dillon has made his mark recently with three recordings released in 2010, and ten commissioned works in the last two years! "A Shadow On the Sun" derives its title from the interesting paradox that the sun's corona (its quasi-atmosphere, visible during total solar eclipse) is 200 times hotter than the visible surface of the sun. Using this curious fact as inspiration, Dillon has written a modern-sounding work in one movement which is thrilling and engaging. From the opening dark whirring energies of low muted brass percussively punctuated by chords on the harp and piano to the extensive use of percussion, there was a continuous pulsation as levels waxed and ebbed, throbbed and cooled. I was impressed by the extensive use of a battery of drums of various pitches. Closing palely on some open fifths, I wished the work were longer – perhaps the composer could write a sequel – from the cool side of the sun!
This performance was accompanied by projections of solarscapes, coronal loops, worms and filaments which I would have found fascinating on their own, especially if accompanied by explanations. However in this concert setting, I found them distracting and not directly related to the music. (The tight marriage of visual and auditory was the subject of the UNCG New Music Festival last September.)
The final work, and lasting longer than the three other works combined was the Fourth Symphony (in one movement) by David Maslanka who introduced it musing at length about live music, community, and the lessons Abraham Lincoln (whose influence was great on Maslanka during the composition of the work) has for us now in terms of sustainability and survival. Beginning very quietly with a lengthy unaccompanied horn solo (impressively played by Allie Burkhart), this was a very agreeable piece. Warm burnished brass playing was followed by powerful climaxes with the woodwinds scrambling through arpeggios as though climbing frantically through vines. Mr. Maslanka writes tonal music and is a superb orchestrator – he knows what instruments are capable of, eerily bowed crotales, and even somewhat comical, as when the clarinets played their barrels with their fingers, much like a bunch of boys might play with slide whistles. A lush middle section, almost Ravel-ean led to a huge and powerful climax using the Christian Doxology which uses the same tune as the hymn "Old Hundred" which figured prominently in Lincoln's funeral services. I quietly wondered how such a soft-spoken man could write such powerful music! A friend, himself a composer, commented that there were moments recalling Bruckner, and I agreed, especially the evident devoutness both composers exhibit. The closing chord brought down the house and the students were extravagant in their delight and applause.
This was an impressive concert and the mild-mannered Dr. Dobbs deserves much of the credit. His conducting technique is direct, precise and unaffected. He gave the young musicians free rein in climaxes, even breaking his baton and eventually discarding it, yet he controlled textures and pacing carefully.
It was disconcerting to notice that not all musicians took their tuning note from the oboe at the beginning of the concert as is habitual in a professional setting. It would be upsetting to think that personal arrogance is the reason, and downright disturbing if the young musician was incapable of noticing the difference. Intonation, being "in tune," has increasingly become a problem at the UNCSA. Trumpets, especially muted, often have the problem, but not uniquely; piccolo, clarinet and double basses all have their challenges, sometimes due to the very construction of the instruments. And all wind instruments, whenever playing in the extremes of their ranges (very high or very low), have both intonation and blending problems.
The author is reminded of a time over a dozen years ago when regional orchestras, professional as well as student, were all going through intonation distress. The source was finally traced to a piano tuner who had been persuaded to tune an institution's pianos higher than the standard A=440 Hz. After some discussion, it was agreed to return to A=440 and within a few months the intonation problems vanished.
There are orchestras, especially in Europe, which intentionally tune high to add brilliance to the string sound, and sometimes to the point that brass players have to mechanically cut tubing from their instruments to cope. The standardization of A at 440 vibrations per second is relatively recent (1933) with orchestras in the Baroque and classical periods having had wildly divergent tunings.