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Wind Ensemble Review

What Is a Wind Symphony?

September 29, 2005 - Durham, NC:

Take a cluster of clarinets, a flock of flutes, a swarm of saxophones, a battery of brass, and a pack of percussion, dress them in black formal wear and seat them on stage, roughly in the arrangement of a symphony orchestra and there you have it – the Duke Wind Symphony. Oh, yes! Add John Randal Guptill on the podium and the picture and the sound are complete. The concert in Baldwin Auditorium on Thursday, September 29, was titled "Music for Duke" and featured music associated with the University. Some was commissioned and composed for Duke musicians, some was especially arranged for the Duke Wind Symphony, and some was by composers of note who taught at Duke or who visited the campus as guests of the Duke Music Department.

Guptill opened the program with New Hampshire-born "Zo" (Alonzo) Elliott's whiz-bang "British" march, "British Eighth." In a poll of band directors some time back, it placed third in a list of "Eighty Most Popular Marches." It embodies the elegant British military attitude of restraint, dignity, and determination. Elliott was best known as composer of the popular song of the World War I era, "There's a Long Long Trail."

Retired Mary Duke Biddle Professor of Music and Durham resident Robert Ward was represented with his "Night Fantasy," published in 1944 and first performed by the Goldman Band. It is more contemplative and romantic than much symphonic wind music and shows the influence of Ward's teacher, Aaron Copland. As in Copland's orchestral masterpiece "Quiet City," here the first and second trumpets play a major role in setting the mood. The trumpeters and the first clarinetist did outstanding solo work.

From my own days in high school and college band and during my sons' high school and college music-making, I have found band music satisfying and enriching. Even though I gave up my old trombone, it opened the door to a life of music appreciation that has brought me more joy than anything else in all the world. All of us who care anything about concert band music are thankful that Ralph Vaughan Williams had roots in the tradition and wrote several fine scores in this genre, especially the marvelous English Folk Song Suite, composed in 1923 for military band. On this occasion, we heard "Linden Lea," an English folksong set by RVW and arranged by John W. Stout.

A second English folk song, "Ye Banks and Braes O' Bonnie Doon," set by the idiosyncratic and complex Percy Aldridge Grainger, was played with the lilt and easy charm the Australian composer and brilliant pianist was best known for.

Composer Norman Dello Joio is now 92 years old, residing in New York and reportedly still writing music. "Variants on a Mediaeval Tune" was commissioned by the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation for the Duke University Band, Paul Bryan, conductor. It was first heard on April 10, 1963, and was in the Duke Wind Symphony's repertoire on their first Vienna trip in 1973. The work is a set of five variations based on the familiar Christmas carol "In Dulci Jubilo." The five variations, featuring various choruses of instruments and full band, seem to owe some debt to Benjamin Britten's "Variations on a Theme of Henry Purcell"; in structure and treatment of thematic material, there are both subtle and striking similarities.

The closing piece was a version of "Sentimental Journey" written for the Duke Wind Symphony by Les Brown himself in the late 1970s. The opening was especially nice, with the haunting melody played by a solo French horn over soft clarinet chords. For an encore, the Wind Symphony played "Dear Old Duke" and the pep song, "Blue and White."

The Duke University Wind Symphony made an impressive appearance, all in formal black attire, though a couple of the young ladies' skirts were distractingly short for this sort of occasion. The band is made up this year of a large number of very talented freshmen and augers well for great things to come. Some of the playing was a bit mushy, and more attention to articulation and finer ensemble voicing might help. The concert was brief – less than an hour even with an intermission thrown in – but it was a sweet reminder of the thrill of music making as part of a fine ensemble with a treasured past and a future full of promise.