The first surprise was that the UNC Asheville Music Department needed to enlist eight “ringers” (non-students and high-schoolers) in order to put a balanced 30-member concert band on the stage of Lipinsky Auditorium. After all, this school prides itself on being the only campus in the University of North Carolina system dedicated to providing a liberal arts college experience. With over 3,000 undergraduate liberal arts students, one would expect that there would be more student musicians volunteering for the band.
The second surprise was that the band went through only a very casual tune-up before playing Johann Strauss’s Radetzky March, the first piece on the program (which misspelled the title). As a consequence, the band was significantly out of tune.
The third surprise, which may be related to the first two, was that the band’s performance at this concert was not up to the standards of the best local high schools. For example, the award-winning Hendersonville High School band would have executed this program better.
Assistant Professor John Entzi, the band’s director and formerly Director of Concert Bands and Jazz Ensembles at NC State University, took the Radetzky March at a relaxed tempo, destroying the tension and edge that the popular piece usually demonstrates. The performance was, in a word, dull.
Entzi properly tuned the band before the second piece, the Gustav Holst “Suite #1 in E-flat for Military Band.” The Holst work fared a little better than the Strauss, although the first entry by the low brass came in three pieces instead of being simultaneous, there was a squawk from a clarinet during the second movement, and in the third movement a gradual crescendo was ignored in favor of a sudden dynamic change to forte.
Richard Wagner’s music requires attention to the long line, articulation of inner voices, and above all, observing the tension and release that is so often at the center of a musical experience. The band’s rendition of “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral” from Lohengrin lacked all three. In addition, the band’s dynamics ranged from mezzo forte to fortissimo; it was as though piano and pianissimo did not exist.
The final two pieces, written by contemporary American band composers, received much better performances. They were conducted with more thought and played with more assurance than the three classical pieces on the program.
James Curnow, formerly a University of Illinois faculty member, now spends his time composing and arranging. His “Rejouissance” (loosely translated as “Rejoicing”) is an excellent piece, often programmed for concert band. From the soft fanfare-like beginning to the climactic moment, the band introduces motifs that are fragments of the Luther Hymn. Then at the climax “Ein Feste Burg ist Unser Gott” (“A Mighty Fortress is Our God”) springs forth, being quoted in toto. This performance was mostly convincing.
Eric Whitacre is a young composer who studied with John Corigliano and David Diamond at the Juilliard School. He specializes these days in serious educational music for bands and choruses, but also has an ear for a fun piece. Whitacre’s “Godzilla Eats Las Vegas” comes complete with a one-page story board, as though the music was the score to a Godzilla film, complete with the destruction of Frank Sinatra, Wayne Newton and Liberace (referred to as the Village Gods of Las Vegas) and retaliation by an army of Elvises (known as “the Elvi”). The piece seemed clearly to be a favorite of the band, who performed con brio. They provided piano glissandi, block chords, trombone glissandi, horn trills, applause, screams and laughs as called for by the score. A brief quote of “I’ll be Seeing You” (in all those old familiar places) in counterpoint with the opening piano chords to the Grieg piano concerto hinted at a Godzilla sequel.
“Godzilla Eats Las Vegas” was the high point of the brief 50-minute concert. While the Curnow and the Whitacre works were executed in a satisfactory manner, the paying audience of over one hundred deserved a better performance of the classical works.