An important debut took place in Baldwin Auditorium on Thursday night — an off-night for concerts, generally speaking. The occasion was the first appearance of Emily Threinen as leader of the Duke Wind Symphony. She selected a refreshingly varied program titled "A Kaleidoscopic View" that gave just that — of the literature for wind ensembles, of the current state of readiness of the players, and of the new director's leadership skills. Given that we're but four weeks into the term at Duke, the results were commendable.
Threinen holds a DMA from the University of Michigan; her other academic work was at Northwestern University and the University of Minnesota. She's led bands at Concordia and retains her post as Conductor and Artistic Director of the Dodworth Saxhorn Band. Based on this first local appearance, she has a lot to offer in terms of repertory and podium style and personality, too. She's no arm flailer, that's for sure, yet she elicits admirable results in terms of phrasing and dynamics — not an easy hat-trick when the subject of the conversation is a really big band (and this one is around 60 players). True, there were some split ends (as the hairdressers might say) here and there, in the trumpets and the horns, particularly, and there were some attacks that weren't totally uniform. But this was a wonderfully musical concert of richly varied fare that gave great pleasure, overall. One could hardly ask for more on such an occasion, so early in the school year.
Things got underway with one of those wonderful canzons by Giovanni Gabrieli (edited by Mark Scatterday), played by two small ensembles stationed in the balcony who made a great and splendid noise. Imagine the effect of something like that in a cathedral four hundred years ago and you get the picture.
A strange work by Percy Grainger followed — it must have been written partly in jest, for in "The Immovable Do" (a reference to solfeggio's C), there's a droning high C that runs through the entire piece, like a cipher, the bane of organists. Still, this thing exuded a lot of the well-known Grainger charm, and it was a treat to hear it since so little of the composer's music is still played nowadays.
Malcolm Arnold's Four Scottish Dances, Op. 59, followed. His music isn't heard too often, either, but this set, based on ... well..., three Scottish dances and a little song..., has tremendous appeal and was handsomely played, to boot. The composer may be best known for his contributions to films — The Bridge on the River Kwai was one of his (although the famous march contained therein was not). There was some admirable solo work along the way, and the first half ended with hearty applause.
The concert continued with the motoric, noisy "Machine" movement from the Symphony No. 5 by William Bolcom — yep, that master of old (and new) American songs and ditties. This work seeks to beat Mossolov, composer of "The Iron Foundry," at his own game, and with its 1980s hydraulics and such, it's fairly successful. Among the augmentees was none other than Randall Love, who spins a mean fortepiano but who here got to bang his heart out on the keys of the onstage grand piano. (Best not to let any members of the Southeastern Historical Keyboard Society know of this defection.)
An arrangement of Pavel Tschesnokoff's "Salvation is Created," one of the choral realm's most sublime scores, seemed noisy and over-the-top, although there were some sonorities that suggested portions of Pictures at an Exhibition. Far more successful — indeed, the evening's most successful offering, in my view — was a radiant reading of John Barnes Chance's Variations on a Korean Folk Song (1965). This tragically short-lived composer worked for a time in the public school system of Greensboro, so there was a fine local touch. Unlike most of the program, this piece was written for symphonic band, and it made splendid use of the ensemble's fine tone color, timbre, and dynamic capabilities. Its Asian overtones added still more color and gave the percussionists lots to do as well.
The program ended with the Galop from Shostakovich's operetta Moscow, Cheryomushki, Op. 105. This upbeat bit of musical satire, done as only the Russian master could do it, served as a rousing finale for a truly kaleidoscopic evening of music from around the world that concurrently showed the burgeoning chops of a fine mostly-student ensemble and its new leader. The group's next concerts will be over Parents Weekend and then on November 15. Folks tired of museum-like programming from our orchestras will find much to admire in the sector of the musical community occupied by our excellent bands.