Symphonic Wind Ensemble Impresses With Eclectic Selection
Published: Thursday, October 25, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 01:11
Few concerts can boast as wide a repertoire as was performed by the Kenyon College Symphonic Wind Ensemble last Saturday. In addition to standard 20th-century wind band works, the ensemble performed a Bach piece from 1705 and a modern, puzzling piece written by American composer Ron Nelson in 1981. With few exceptions, the ensemble performed admirably, especially considering their rehearsal period was just five weeks long. The audience, which filled about a third of Rosse Hall and included many visiting family members, seemed pleased.
The concert opened with Festivo, a 1968 composition by Czech-born composer Vaclav Nelhybel, during which the ensemble demonstrated disciplined playing under the baton of Professor of Music Dane Heuchemer. The musicians provided a good contrast between the piece’s powerful opening and closing sections and a more tranquil central section.
In the next piece, Bach’s Fantasia in G Major, the players had to shift back 250 years. Because the Fantasia was originally written for organ and was arranged for a band centuries later, the piece challenged the members of the ensemble to sound as if each musician were a part of one great instrument. Although the wind ensemble did not quite achieve this, it probably came about as close as any band of 40-plus members could.
Heuchemer shunned his baton while conducting the piece. “It just doesn’t seem right holding a baton with that piece,” he said. “I actually have more batons with the fingers, to shape it.”
The next piece, Charles Ives’ Country Band March, came with a disclaimer. Due to Ives’ innovative composition techniques, the piece is “supposed to sound bad,” Heuchemer said. True to its title, the piece is meant to imitate the sound of an amateur, under-rehearsed country band stumbling its way through a performance. This “intentional mess,” as the program notes called it, includes subtle and not-so-subtle quotations of no fewer than a dozen tunes, including “London Bridge” and “Yankee Doodle,” as well as frequent changes in meter that keep both musicians and conductor on their toes.
Heuchemer, however, left the podium for the Ives, allowing conducting student Patrick Joyal ’13, who has contributed to the Collegian in the past, to try his hand at directing the complex piece. Joyal performed admirably, leading the band with the precision and control necessary to keep the players together throughout the mess of the score. His conducting pattern seemed, at times, to be excessively broad and swoopy, but this helped provide the energy needed for such a madcap piece.
Asked why he chose to program the Ives over several other pieces Heuchemer offered him, Joyal said, “I needed a challenge. And I’ve a particularly soft spot for all things strange.” The piece sounded strange indeed, beginning with a dissonant downward scale that reminded one of tumbling down stairs. Joyal also noted that the Ives allowed the ensemble to “come together on a piece that doesn’t exactly sound the most tonal or the most put together.” The ensemble lived up to this wish, playing the march perfectly imperfectly, as Ives designed it.
Following a brief intermission, Heuchemer retook the stage to lead the only piece of the afternoon stranger than Ives’ march. Homage to Leonin, by the previously mentioned Nelson, is a tribute to the French medieval composer Leonin. The piece opens with simple chanting, but layers upon layers are quickly added until the piece reaches a kind of “golden mean,” before the music dissipates into nothing once again.
Several sections of the piece are not in meter, but are simply marked as lasting for an approximate number of seconds, at the conductor’s discretion. “Sometimes you let it stretch,” Heuchemer said. “The whole idea of the Leonin style was in part to build a trance … and when you feel like it’s ready to move on, you move on.” The piece sounded ethereal and mysterious, like a medieval choir chanting in an ancient cathedral. This effect was aided by the laudable tubular bell playing of percussionist Pamela Faust, executive assistant to the president and provost.
The final piece, several movements from Australian Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy, was rather plain compared to the avant-garde works that preceded it. While the band got through the piece serviceably, they may have been tired out by the end of the challenging concert, and sounded less polished. The first two movements suffered from wobbly pitch in the brass, and the last movement, a dance, could have sounded more playful, perhaps aided by a lighter conducting style.
Still, the wind ensemble’s fall concert was a strong start to what should be an exciting year for them. Heuchemer said he chose the Ives and Nelson pieces to “build up” the ensemble for the rest of the season, calling them “good, entry-level avant-garde works to get the group interested in that kind of technique.” The ensemble will perform Homage to Leonin again at its spring concert, along with two other movements that complete a suite by Nelson. Music fans should be excited to hear how the group improves upon its already strong performance of Nelson’s curious compositions by the time that concert arrives.