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The UNC Chapel Hill Music Department presented the final academic year performances of the Symphony Band and Wind Ensemble as part of its Scholarship Benefit Concert Series on Tuesday evening. Despite the weeknight show date and the proximity to the last day of classes and exams, the concert, housed in Memorial Hall, was well-attended by supportive students, faculty, and other community members. The audience cheered warmly for the ten senior students who were recognized across both ensembles, several of whom had played in multiple ensembles (and even on multiple instruments!) during their tenure.
Dr. Erin Cooper enthusiastically introduced and conducted the UNC Symphony Band, expressing her special connection with the seniors who were freshmen when she became a faculty member. She emotionally presented a program inspired by her upcoming marriage, explaining how each piece fit within the old wedding tradition of including "something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue." This portion of the program began with the "new" work, a composition by living composer Grace Baugher called "Crown and Collar." Inspired by tales of King Richard II and his symbolic white stag, the piece is meant to convey a celebration of humankind's power and privilege while recognizing this simultaneously as a burden and responsibility. Dr. Cooper's large conducting pattern was clear and crisp (no doubt informed by her time leading the school's marching band and instructing drum majors) yet remained energetic and expressive, leading the ensemble through warm, lyric reed moments and into energetic brass themed flanked by a disciplined percussion section.
The "old" work, not actually much older in its publishing date, was Illyrian Dances by Guy Woolfenden. Inspired by Shakespeare's Twelfth Night characterization of Illyria, a "seemingly magical land…off the coast of the Adriatic Sea" where "nothing is as it seems." The suite is steeped in Medieval elements, utilizing hollow tambourine and timpani pairings over cheeky, jaunty lines in constantly changing meter. The low brass deftly executed some quickly-moving lines, while flute, piccolo, and clarinet sections traded off ethereal, sylvan melodies before the work ended in a funny little punctuated ending. There were some consistent intonation issues; the tone and timbre of various instruments was occasionally a little strained, but the rhythmic precision and ensemble balancing were practiced and nearly perfect.
A transcription of Ralph Vaughn Williams' "Rhosymedre" served as the "borrowed" work. Arranged by Walter Beeler for band from the original organ composition, Dr. Cooper chose this piece to honor her mother (who was in the audience and didn't know the piece had been programmed), who had walked down the aisle to this piece at her own wedding. Dr. Cooper was audibly choked up as she introduced the piece, and the band (after a quick re-tune) offered an interpretation as delicately layered as a wedding cake. Clarinet and alto saxophone ornaments were beautiful, and the low brass and horns had some very satisfyingly warm and tender moments.
The Symphony Band's final work (the "something blue") was composed by Toshihiro Fujishiro as a competition requirement for Japanese school bands. "Blue Sky and Sunshine," an unabashedly cheerful march, showcased the brass in a powerful opening before settling into a catchy melody that could have been at home as a Broadway curtain call with its boundless energy. The ensemble continued with its rhythmic precision and contagious energy, even as a few partials were overshot - I chalk that up to passion and enthusiasm in their final concert of the semester.
The stage was quickly reset for the smaller, more advanced UNC Wind Ensemble. The personnel of most sections was reduced, as is typical in a "wind ensemble" as opposed to a concert or symphony band, except for the increased clarinet, trombone, and percussion sections. There was one bassoon and no oboes - perhaps because of the larger clarinet section. Longtime faculty Dr. Evan Feldman started the ensemble off with the Allegro con Spirito from Johann Nepomuk Hummel's Trumpet Concerto in E-flat, a Beethoven-esque work with dense texture and elegant dynamic and harmonic shifts. Soloist Nico McLaurin performed (seemingly from memory, even though a music stand stood nearby) with palpable excitement and a warm, clear tone that never overpowered the ensemble's vibrant accompaniment. He did seem to be fighting with some water stuck somewhere in the instrument that rattled and gurgled several times, necessitating pulling some slides out during rests, but he overcame this smoothly and never seemed to lose his cool. McLaurin's arpeggiated and chromatic flourishes, followed by an extended trill, were especially polished and exciting.
The ensemble next performed Kevin Day's "Shimmering Sunshine," an exciting work with driving percussion, reed flourishes, and cinematic, sweeping movement. The small army of percussionists manned a number of instruments, conveying the composition's playful alternation of cheerful and frenetic energy. In addition to a lovely, soaring saxophone line, there were intricate licks passed throughout the ensemble, resulting in a densely layered and eventful performance.
Dr. Feldman next introduced an unusual programming choice while pianist Kimberly Liu and harpist Rose Abernethy entered: Julie Giroux's "Riften Wed." Set in the seedy city of Riften from the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim video game (whose music was originally composed by Jeremy Soule), the piece is meant to evoke imagery of a wedding amidst an expansive world of violence and chaos. While heavily influenced by the video game's atmosphere of a savage Medieval fantasy world, the work is complex and emotionally intense. A solemn, tonally dark brass opening laid the foundation of a mysterious and ethereal world, the sparkling harp and chimes evoking magical themes. The performance was soaring yet contemplative, rhythmically ambiguous at times, and featured some of the loudest, rumbling brass heard in the whole program. The piano, unfortunately, blended into the background and wasn't heard clearly, but did add to the overall fantasy atmosphere of the work.
To close the evening, Dr. Feldman invited members of the audience to come sit on stage, flanking the musicians up close in a more intimate, jazz-club feel. I can personally only compare this to performances by Snarky Puppy, a band that invites audiences to sit on stage amidst its players. Frank Ticheli's "Blue Shades," a sprightly and infectious work, is full of jazz idioms and wonderfully sassy rhythms. The flutes performed some excellent flutter-tonguing, the trombones played aggressive, cheeky slides, and the brass in general seemed like it got the chance to really let loose. Some challenging bass clarinet licks by Madelyn Anthony laid the foundation for an extended clarinet section feature. First a single clarinetist stood at the front of the stage to play the high, jaunty solo, then she was joined by another, and another - until five clarinetists ripped through the feature in perfect screaming unison. This piece is challenging all around but was delivered with so much energy and joy - a perfect way to celebrate a difficult academic year!