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Duke University Wind Symphony – Made in America

by Ken Hoover

November 19, 2009, Durham, NC:  The Duke University Wind Symphony appeared in Baldwin Auditorium under the very capable direction of Dr. Verena Mösenbichler-Bryant. They presented a program, “Made in America,” music all by American composers.

Wind symphonies or symphonic bands have been around for a long time in countries around the world and have filled a significant musical role for both musicians and audiences in places often beyond the reach of symphony orchestras. One of the most memorable experiences of our trip to Europe a few years back was being unexpectedly entertained by an Austrian town band while we dined in St. Wolfgang am See about 70 Km east of Salzburg. The band performed on a float on the edge of the sea.  In such groups, choirs of flutes, clarinets, saxophones, euphoniums (or baritone horns), coronets and the other wind instruments and percussion provide sounds ranging from the rich and mellow to “Star Wars” invasion. Many great composers have written for such groups.

The concert opened with an arrangement of Samuel Augustus Ward’s “America, the Beautiful” that was both mellow and stirring. The arrangement was by Hollywood’s Carman Dragon.

The next selection, "Bloom," was composed in 2004 by active composer Steven Bryant who makes his home in Little Rock, Arkansas and writes music in a wide variety of formats. Bloom is homage to spring and all that is blooming to life in that radiant season. The music begins softly as a sunrise and through skilled orchestration and superbly controlled performance gradually builds to a glorious day in all its radiance.

Robert Russell Bennett’s Suite of Old American Dances, composed in 1950 concluded the first half of the concert.  It consists of three dances: "Cake Walk" – a sort of strut based on a march rhythm and often used in old time minstrel shows; "Schotttische" – a Scottish round dance similar to the polka, only slower; and "Western One-Step" – a variant of an early ballroom dance that was a forerunner of the foxtrot. Interesting rhythmic music, stylish instrumentation and sterling ensemble playing by the Duke Wind Symphony provided a boost for this listener who needed it and appreciated it very much.

Mösenbichler-Bryant chose Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 Overture to Candide to continue the concert after intermission. The arrangement was by Walter Beeler and this was, for the writer of this review, the highlight of the concert. The full appreciation of Bernstein as a composer has not yet been realized. If anyone knew how to “burst into song” it was Lenny. The conductor tonight obviously knows this and after the busy opening when the middle register instruments launch into the rapturous main theme, it was a moment of pure musical magic magnificently realized. The development of this theme and the conclusion of the piece were nearly flawlessly accomplished.

Vincent Persichetti (1918-1987) was a unique and vibrant voice in American music. His Symphony for Band, Op. 69 was commissioned by the Washington University Chamber Band as an eight-minute piece. It took on a life of its own and ended up as a full symphony pretty much in strict classical form. The opening introduces thematic material which is fully developed with deft integration of percussion as the movement progresses. The second movement marked adagio sostenuto is a hymn-tune based on an earlier church work by the composer. The third movement opens with a clarinet theme which is developed through alternating sections of the band and rhythms shifting between 6/8 and 2/4. The final movement is marked vivace and brings back themes from earlier in the symphony, ending with a blazing chord that includes all twelve tones of a chromatic scale spread out widely across the spectrum of instrumental sound. It was a well accomplished performance with special kudos to all the percussion section.

The final piece on the concert was Undertow composed in 2008 by another active young American composer, John Mackey. Quoting the program notes, compiled by Mösenbichler-Bryant, “Undertow" is an exhilarating flash of musical lightning, with an infectious rhythmic force.” The Duke University Wind Symphony was well warmed up at this point and nailed this exciting piece with confidence.

It must be said that Mösenbichler-Bryant, who grew up in Austria and is serving as Visiting Assistant Professor of the Practice of Music and Director of the Duke University Wind Symphony, was a joy to watch as were the results a joy to hear. There were no wasted or superfluous movements, but every stroke of her baton and movement of her body conveyed meaningful communication in the shaping of the tempo, phrasing and emotion of the music. Watch for the next concert of the DUWS in the spring.

For an encore Mösenbichler-Bryant called Mr. Percy Kelley to the podium. Now if you have ever been to a concert involving Duke performers, students or faculty, you have seen Mr. Kelley, arranging chairs and music stands, assisting in innumerable ways, solving problems, helping with programs, seeing audience members to their seats and always in his gentle and infectious manner. Announcing Kelley’s retirement at the end of this year, Mösenbichler-Bryant turned over her podium and her baton to him and he conducted a rousing and unforgettable performance of John Philip Sousa’s "Stars and Stripes Forever." It was a Wow moment, indeed.

   
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