Thursday night, Paul Garcia led the NCSU Wind Ensemble in the first concert of this school year in the recently-renovated Stewart Theatre. Dr. Garcia has greatly enhanced the quality of this band during his tenure, and it showed in this evening's performance, and in the choice of repertoire. In a school with no music majors, all the musicians must find the time and energy to spare in their busy lives, filled mostly with their studies in many other fields, almost always unrelated to the arts. This wind ensemble gives them a chance to participate in making music that they otherwise would not have, and likely will not have after graduation.
One brief comment about the program; while well printed and put together, it did not give any information about the music or composers, and did not indicate the section leaders. Instead, Garcia introduced each piece that he conducted by speaking from the stage. While this is a perfectly fine thing to do, a good deal less information is given and retained by listeners than if there are program notes.
As is usual for band concerts, all the pieces were relatively short, and gave a range of styles and familiarity, as well as technical difficulty. The first two works were by Australian composer Percy Aldridge Grainger (1882-1961), one of the more peculiar and successful musicians of his time. While writing popular music easily appreciated by most people, he also did highly experimental music very much in the avant-garde range. The pieces given here were two of his most well-known standards. The first, "Shepherd's Hey," is cheerful, and was performed with good balance and intonation (which was true throughout the concert). The attentive listener would appreciate the tempo variations and well-executed accelerandos. The second piece was "Irish Tune from Country Derry," which is an arrangement of "Danny Boy." The challenge is to pull this one off without over sentimentality, and the band did that well.
The third piece was Symphonic Dance No.3: "Fiesta," by Clifton Williams (1923-1976), a noted composer for wind ensemble and band. This is the third of five such dances, composed from 1963 to 1965. Of the pieces on this program, it had the most active percussion parts, as one might expect. The beginning was quite discordant and loud, but it settled down after a bit. The ensemble handled some complex meters well, and played with enthusiasm in this upbeat dance.
Next, there was a transition to chamber groups. The first was "On the Beautiful Blue Danube" by Johann Strauss II, performed by the Brickyard Brass Quintet. Only the tubist was from the NCSU Wind Ensemble, with the two trumpets, horn, and trombone coming in fresh from the sidelines. This old chestnut derives much of its charm from the background figurations and nuances from the string section, which by necessity were lost in the arrangement for brass quintet. What was left was rather more reminiscent of Sousa than Strauss, although the effect was not altogether unpleasant. However, it was certainly not Viennese. To get the true effects near the original intent usually requires a touch of age and experience – this will come in time.
The Wind Ensemble Clarinet Choir performed the second of the two chamber works, which by my (possibly inaccurate) count was 21 clarinetists strong. The principal clarinetist introduced the piece, "Twisty Turny Thing" by Alun Cook, but he neglected to use the microphone, so his words were lost to the audience, and certainly to this reviewer. Cook is an English composer of eclectic tastes with much influence from jazz, which certainly dominated the flavor of this music. Most of Cook's music is for wind ensemble.
Returning to the full wind ensemble, Garcia conducted "October" by Eric Whitacre (born 1970). This was a mostly lyrical and very tonal piece, sounding much like what you might expect in a contemporary movie. This is not terribly surprising, as he lives in Los Angeles. This approach, while commercially effective, has not been entirely appreciated among classical reviewers (see this scathing review from August 2015 of a Proms concert in England). This particular work on tonight's program was worth a listen, if not terribly intellectually satisfying. Not all music needs to be, especially if the composer is handsome and with high cheekbones, in a culture where looks and youthful vigor are valued.
For the final selection, we had "The Universal Judgement" by Camille de Nardis (1857-1951) in 1878. Evidently de Nardis listened to a good deal of Tchaikovsky, as it would have been possible to completely fool a naïve listener into thinking he was the composer, had there only been more repeated passages and the addition of a string section. In fact, this work was originally for orchestra, and was arranged later for band; this was clearly in evidence, as the effect was much more orchestral than most of the other music performed tonight. For more information about this music, see here.
In all, it was an enjoyable evening, and the students played quite well to an appreciative audience. We look forward to more through the school year.