There are few things more riveting than the sound of a wind ensemble. The blaring power of the brass, skyrocketing arpeggios of the various woodwinds, and the myriad of colors emanating from the percussion section always provide an exciting experience for audiences of all ages. The Hendersonville Community Band’s (HCB) final concert of the 2012 – 2013 Season perfectly captured this defining element of the wind ensemble, with a diverse selection of popular American music. The title of the concert, “Pops and Patriotic,” reflected the repertoire performed, covering a plethora of uniquely American genres ranging from Jazz and Ragtime to Broadway musical selections, Country music, and even a medley of Paul Simon songs. These well-known genres are typically staples of any “Pops” concert. But the HCB also performed Charles Ives’ serious concert work, “Variations on America,” a musically demanding theme and variations on the popular patriotic song “America the Beautiful.”
Ives was the quintessential American in every sense of the word – a rebellious visionary who constantly sought innovation within the musical language of his times. A serious student of the classical canon, Ives was also a fan of the popular brass band music of his time. Written in 1891 when Ives was only 17 years old, the precocious work was originally written for organ. With its use of polytonality, where different melodic lines are performed simultaneously in different keys, the work was – and still is in many ways – a musical composition beyond its time. It was not until Ives won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, when the composer was 73 years old, that he began to receive recognition as a part of the canon of great American composers. And it wasn’t until 1962, seven decades after “Variations on America” was first composed and eight years after Ives’ death, that American composer William Schuman arranged the work for symphony orchestra.
The version performed by the HCB was the popular arrangement for wind ensemble by William Rhoads. The piece opens in much the same way a John Phillip Sousa march would, with a triumphant trumpet fanfare. This is followed by the theme of “America the Beautiful,” performed with all the ebullience one would expect to hear from a New England town band in the 1890s. The majestic chorale texture of the familiar melody is frequently interrupted by a cavalcade of frenzied dissonance in the flutes and clarinets, with premature cadences by comically thunderous percussion and brass choirs engaging in polytonal interplay. While these humorous effects are intended to make the band sound “out of tune,” they are in actuality some of the most difficult things for even the highest level wind ensemble to execute. The clarinets and low brass did an especially fine job of maintaining intonation amongst Ives’ compositional chaos, while the flutes navigated the chromatic madness of the countermelodies with precision and grace. The 15 piece trumpet section played with laser-beam uniformity of intonation and conviction, elevating the entire ensemble to dramatic new heights. Conductor Winford Franklin managed the near impossible task of coordinating the work’s intentional pandemonium with calm yet intentional waves of his baton, guiding the mammoth ensemble with the strength and fortitude of a great leader.
Following the performance of the Ives the audience was treated to the virtuosic playing of clarinetist Joel Hefland, a former high school band director and musician who has worked alongside such artists as Sarah Vaughn and Gerry Mulligan. His sublime portrayal of the famous Jazz clarinetist/bandleader Artie Shaw was a highlight of the concert. Hefland performed the rapid yet quiet passages with inspiring dexterity, and lifted the spirits of the audience with his powerful and beautiful command over the stratospheric notes of his instrument’s clarino register. The atypically large low brass section could have easily overpowered Hefland’s solo clarinet at any point, but their musical sensitivity provided him instead with a warm, organ-like pad over which the soloist was provided the opportunity to explore the subtle nuances of his instrument. While the piece was a feature for Hefland, the audience was also fortunate to experience the contribution of Russ Sena’s lyrical trumpet solo.
With this Jazz feature, it seemed appropriately fitting to have a selection showcasing one of Jazz music’s ancestors, Ragtime. A popular genre with wind ensembles, the Ragtime selection for this concert featured the flute section as a collective solo consort within the larger wind ensemble. On Arthur Fracknepohl’s “Flute Rag,” the flutists of the HCB played with impeccable rhythmic accuracy and intonation, all without losing the dance-like quality of the jubilant melody. When playing in the lowest register of their instrument during the trio section of the rag, the flutes uniformity of timbre and articulation created a beautiful calliope effect that represented the apex of ensemble playing – it truly sounded like one instrument was being performed by eleven players. The percussionists of the band supported the flutes with rhythmic fervor and vivacity, never sounding overwhelming and always putting the syncopated hits in the right place with the brass.
The ensemble’s magnificent performance on Sunday was a testimony to the multitude of individual talent in every section of the Band. However, it was the band’s collective virtuosity that made for a riveting afternoon of music. It is no small feat for 88 wind, brass and percussion musicians to achieve the unity and kaleidoscope of colorful sounds that was heard at Blue Ridge Community College. Winford Franklin’s conducting prowess and leadership and the dedication and talent of the HCB deserves special recognition, and this reviewer looks forward to hearing future performances by the stellar ensemble.