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International Women's Day is March 8, and NC State University's Wind Ensemble acknowledged its support with a concert of works composed entirely by female composers. While the concert spanned centuries of musical influences and several continents of cultural inspiration, all five composers were born between 1951 and 1987, making this a truly contemporary concert of incredible works by women.
The NC State Wind Ensemble, under the direction of Paul Garcia, is a traditional wind ensemble with woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments performing works orchestrated exclusively for its instrumentation. Garcia obviously has enthusiasm and love for the ensemble and the students themselves; he was breathless but so earnest about presenting interesting works from a variety of backgrounds. First up was Carolyn Bremer's "Early Light," a symphonic poem based on the US National Anthem, recalling nostalgic openings of baseball games with friends and family. It took a few minutes for intonation and rhythmic precision to settle across the ensemble, but the percussion especially shone in its performance of difficult, sparse rhythmic sections.
After a brief transition, the brass section divided itself into two antiphonal choirs, positioned in two offstage areas opposite one another, while the winds and percussion remained onstage. This setup was part of Kathryn Salfelder's homage to Giovanni Gabrieli. Her "Cathedrals" is a fantasy on his Canzon primi toni, and calls for cori spezzati (broken choirs; traditionally choirs separated into antiphonal choir lofts on either arm of a cathedral). The performance was enthralling, drawing listeners' attention around to different sides of the room for compounding melodic and chordal lines. While one side of the brass choir was markedly larger than the other, this provided diversity in tone colors, making them easier to distinguish and adding interest. The percussion and winds on stage were drowned out a little – understandably – but provided grounding rhythmic lines for the warm brass chords to drift over.
Energy began to flag a little at the beginning of Shelley Hanson's Islas y Montañas. The first movement, "Toccata," required performers to layer together rhythmic stomping, clapping, pencil tapping, and traditional Cuban percussion instruments. While it sounded great, much of the ensemble seemed skeptical about clapping and stomping, lending an air of uncertainty to an otherwise fun opening. The third movement (the second was omitted) helped the ensemble regain its verve. "Seis Manuel" was a take on traditional Puerto Rican harmonic pattern, over which were layered delicious solos by clarinet, saxophone, trombone, and oboe, all backed by a tightly-knit percussion groove. The last movement, "La Tumba de Alejandro Garcia Caturla," was a tribute to the Cuban composer, who was killed very young at the outset of what otherwise would have been a strong musical career. Its Gershwin-esque rhythms worked to a frenzy, highlighting strong trumpet and English horn soloists. The rhythms and minimal melodic lines in this work are necessarily repetitive, and it would have been nice to hear more dynamic variation, or evolving interpretation, but despite the work remaining a little static, the ensemble worked well together.
Similarly, Kate Bergman's "Dream Machine" was a little repetitive, lacking much of a melodic line in exchange for its evolving rhythmic undercurrents. The atmospheric nature of the pulsing rhythms overlaid with rolling chords and haunting bowed vibraphone gave the piece a formless, ethereal quality that was well delivered.
The final piece on the program was jarringly hokey but seemed to be the ensemble and crowd favorite; Alex Shapiro's "Lights Out" is a crowd-sourced composition given shape by the composer's collaboration with students nationwide via Skype. There were dancing lights, backing tracks, choreography by the instrumentalists, and an underlying, running rhythmic beat to tie it all together. While not as beautiful and dignified as other works on the program, it certainly made an exciting close to a fun concert, reminding us all not to take ourselves too seriously and to enjoy music-making in the contemporary genre.