Sunday, July 23, 2017

HUEY 2: Des Moines Symphony

DES MOINES SYMPHONY: "Music in Motion" (Isn't it always?)

Office: The Temple for Performing Arts, 1011 Locust Street, Suite 200, Des Moines, IA 50309
Performance Site: Des Moines Civic Center (capacity 2,744)
Conductor: Joseph Giunta (26th year)

Des Moines Civic Center: who chose the color scheme?
Of course, the best seats are usually in the middle;
Get there early. There is no center aisle.

And the exterior: brutalism at its best?
General: Because of its location the Des Moines Symphony has access to a talented player base, including faculty from Iowa State University and Drake University. Maestro Giunta's programming is conservative, and concert titles make little effort to inspire, e.g. "Invitation to the Dance," "Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake," "Stravinsky's Petrouchka," and the like. Each concert remains in large part the Overture - Concerto - Symphony format or some variation on that theme. The one truly new work is a world premiere by Augusta Reed Thomas, to be offered in March. That said, there will be two Beethoven works (the first piano concerto and the seventh symphony) to "soften the blow."

Regarding highlights, there is not a concert on this series that shouts out, "I just have to go to this show!" Solo works include violin concertos by Bruch (G-minor) and Sibelius, piano concertos by Beethoven (No. 1), Shostakovich (No. 2) and Gershwin (Rhapsody in Blue), as well as the ubiquitous Concierto de Aranjuez (for guitar) by Joaquin Rodrigo. Pops concerts include "The Music of Queen," the New Year's Pops - "The Classic Hits of Motown," and "Leslie Odom, Jr. in Concert."

In more ways than vitriolic politics, our capital city can do much better.

Saturday, July 22, 2017


The Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids
Without a doubt, Iowa's most beautiful concert "palace."

In Summer 2011, I began an ongoing series of posts rating the programming of local "regional" orchestras (those within a three-hour drive from the home office in Dubuque, Iowa). Originally, I wrote that,

The "Huey awards" are arbitrary, based on my own criteria which include possible thematic content, the inclusion of both contemporary and American composers, and overall creativity and originality.  The latter would imply programs that step out of the Overture - Concerto - Symphony box.  Also of note is the presentation of works outside the standard repertory.  Why offer yet another performance of Dvorak 7 (or 8 or 9) or Shostakovich 5--regardless of my own love for those works--when there are hundreds of neglected works that may be favored by audiences (and surely the players)?  Do we need yet another performance of Beethoven 5 instead of say, the Bizet Symphonie?  Or what about the Franck--long a staple of the repertoire that now seems to be rarely played?  I could make a long list of neglected works, and that's just the works of the "masters."

And I made short mention of contemporary composers. For the record, my own programming over the past few years has included a concert of female composers (with another to come in 2018) and our Musica Nova, focusing solely on the music of the twenty-first century.

Last year I established criteria for scoring; this year that, to me, got cumbersome. So to change it up (it's my system anyway), discussion of each orchestra will include "highlights" and "lowlights," as well as a look at each ensemble's contributions outside "classical" concerts.

Greg Sandow, composer, teacher, critic, and mensch wrote a November blog post on how not to write a press release. In it, he states,

My Juilliard course this fall is well underway, and its title (slightly shortened for clarity) is “How to Speak and Write About Music.”

We read descriptions of music, by critics and others. We practice describing music I play in class.

And, in the spirit of entrepreneurship, we study press releases, bios, and program notes to see how they’re written. And — you knew this was coming if you’ve read me on these subjects — how they could be written better.

They do a terrible job, so many of them, describing the music they’re trying to sell.

For more, read here.

Much of the same could be said for a lot of the publicity generated by orchestras and other arts organizations. Seasons are often highlighted by a catch phrase that is either esoteric or almost incomprehensible. Others are simply too cute for their own good. It's also interesting to read of so called "alternative facts" on some organizational web sites. But that will be left up to the reader. I'm a notorious fact checker, so it's in my blood. That may be unimportant to others. To each his (or her) own.

What? And miss the great music?

Friday, April 21, 2017



a: a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability
b: an illustrious warrior
c: a person admired for achievements and noble qualities
d: one who shows great courage

The word is grossly overused. My all-time favorite running back: Barry Sanders. An extraordinary athlete, but a hero? I think not. Michael Jordan, Muhammed Ali (he called himself the Greatest!), Hank Aaron? Not a hero among them, but Jackie Robinson? He was a hero, putting his life and safety on the line to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Yes, these were admirable athletes with amazing abilities, but that's it. To me, that last definition--"shows great courage" sums up what it means to be a hero.

Musical heroes? Hard to think of one except for (possibly) Shostakovich and that's a stretch. Bach, Beethoven, and all the other killer B's? Nah. Other artists as heroes? Writers? Painters? Sculptors? Leonardo was the ultimate Renaissance man, but no hero.

Uh Uh....
Military men and women as heroes? Yes, but it's usually the unsung kind: the grunts in the trenches willing to throw themselves on a live grenade to save their fellow soldiers. But the generals? Usually not, as most are sitting in the background watching the battle unfold before them.

Definitely not...

Many heroes are expressed in music and the journey the Quad City Wind Ensemble takes with its next concert, Heroic Measures. This is music about individuals or groups who made sacrifices for their beliefs or for others around them. In this, the close of my tenth year with the ensemble, I'm hard pressed to think of a more profound and emotionally wrought program.

William Walton, among the great British composers of the 20th century, is very well-known in his homeland for his film music. It is spectacular. His Spitfire Prelude and Fugue was extracted from one of the four film scores that Walton composed in 1942. That film, The First of the Few, chronicles the design of the famous fighter plane and pays homage to the boys who flew them in the Battle of Britain. Their courage inspired Winston Churchill's speech, "Never was so much owed by so many to so few". The Prelude is hailed as one of Walton's greatest marches, and the Fugue is a flurry of notes, eventually combining with elements of the Prelude at its thrilling climax.

Anyone who knows me is aware of my deep love of the music of Mark Camphouse. His 1992 work, A Movement for Rosa, remains one of my favorites. Written in three distinct sections, it expresses significant events in the life of civil rights heroine (yep--she was definitely one). These include her early life following her 1913 birth in Tuskegee, Alabama; the years of racial strife in Montgomery and the quest for social equality, and an almost serene conclusion, broken however with dissonance that reminds us all of the lingering presence of racism. Mr. Camphouse actually sat with Miss Parks at a performance, stating, "the most memorable experience that I've had – as a musician and as an American."

The tale of Siegfried begins before his birth in the second part of Richard Wagner's massive tetralogy, Die Walkure. The third part is based on Siegfried's adult life, while Götterdämmerung is truly the "twilight of the Gods," the climax of the entire story, and the end of at least 15 hours of music(!) The five hour conclusion is a tale of mistaken identities, magic potions, and an accord gold ring, among so much more. Siegfried, the hero who slew the dragon, Fafner, is himself slain by enemies of his family and the Funeral Music ensues. This brief interlude is full of many of the leitmotivs Wagner has constructed as the basis for the entire four-part opera "mini-series," composed over a period of 26 years and first performed in its entirety in August 1876 at the new Festspielhaus in Bayreuth.

Miklos Rozsa: "Parade of the Charioteers," from Ben Hur

Few scenes on film can match the intensity of the chariot race sequence in William Wyler's 1959 epic. The 18-acre arena itself was the largest movie set ever constructed. Planning for the sequence lasted a year and the scene itself took five weeks to shoot. In 2004, the National Film Preservation Board selected Ben-Hur for preservation by the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for being a "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" motion picture. And the music? Rózsa's score won the Academy Award (his third) and is considered his cinematic masterpiece. While a charioteers' "parade" is not at all historically accurate, who would really have it any other way?

Eric Ewazen: Hymn for the Lost and the Living  Ewazen writes:

On September 11, 2001, I was teaching my music theory class at the Juilliard School, when we were notified of the catastrophe that was occurring several miles south of us in Manhattan. Gathering around a radio in the school’s library, we heard the events unfold in shock and disbelief. Afterwards, walking up Broadway on the sun-filled day, the street was full of silent people, all quickly heading to their homes. During the next several days, our great city became a landscape of empty streets and impromptu, heartbreaking memorials mourning our lost citizens, friends and family. But then on Friday, a few days later, the city seemed to have been transformed. On this evening, walking up Broadway, I saw multitudes of people holding candles, singing songs, and gathering in front of those memorials, paying tribute to the lost, becoming a community of citizens of this city, of this country and of this world, leaning on each other for strength and support. A Hymn for the Lost and the Living portrays those painful days following September 11th, days of supreme sadness. It is intended to be a memorial for those lost souls, gone from this life, but who are forever treasured in our memories.

Artie Shaw: Clarinet Concerto, Ian Aplington, winner of our solo competition

Stephen Melillo has composed more than 1145 works (!), including 33 hours of pieces written for what he calls "Ensembles of the 3rd Millennium." Melillo is counted among the earliest composers for any medium to self-publish his own work; his astute business sense (or a great staff) assures fast delivery. Best of all (to me) is that Steve is a really nice guy, inscribing scores and parts with personalized messages and including "gifts" with any purchase made. David, Stephen's 800th, 4-movement work, has many layers of meaning. True for all of the "storm" works, these layers have been extended to include the use of many new and fresh colours. It is a dramatic work, calling for a boy-soprano or soprano-actress who can depict David, the boy before battle! David is a work about Faith Triumphant! David's faith brings down the insurmountable Goliath. The work is dedicated to Faith and Hope despite the untimely passings of friends and family.

We're mounting a performance that says something; that sends a message, or possibly many of them. It is surely not to be missed.

Saturday, May 13, 2017, 7:30 PM
Galvin Fine Arts Center
St. Ambrose University
Davenport, IA

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

WOW: the joy of youth

Keep true to the dreams of your youth.
~Friedrich Schiller

When we think of Richard Strauss, we are drawn to his early operas: Salome or Elektra, or his many tone poems, Don Juan and Til Eulenspiegel, among them. But none of these were Strauss's "breakthrough" compositions. That was something much briefer and steeped in a language and tradition much different than the direction that his compositional journey would take him.

Strauss was born in Munich (1864), the son of the principal horn player in the Court Orchestra. Like the modern day Vienna Philharmonic, the ensemble performed in both the opera and subscription concerts of the Musical Academy. The Munich Court Orchestra, under the leadership of its esteemed conductor, Hans von Bulow, offered the first performances of both Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger. Richard's father, Franz--possibly the finest horn player of his day--despised anything to do with Wagner. And yet, this "Joachim of the Waldhorn" (as Bulow would call him) never performed anything without his conscientiousness and artistic perfection.

The young Strauss grew up--like Mozart--surrounded by music and showed his preferences for various instruments at an early age: the horn would bring smiles to his face, while he reacted to the violin with tears (maybe it was the player?) His earliest studies included the piano (from age four) and he began learning the violin when he was eight. And yet, he maintained forever his love for dad's instrument and would eventually compose two of the finest concertos for the horn.

He would be grounded in the classics, hearing Der Freischutz and Die Zauberflote when he was only seven. Attending a large number of concerts, he was drawn to the music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, while he shared his father's intense hatred for Wagner. Of Mozart's music, he would state:

...The abundance of the ideas, the harmonic richness, and yet the sense of proportion, the marvelous, lovely, tender, delightful ideas themselves, the delicate accompaniment. Yet one can't play anything like that anymore! All you get now is drivel; either twittering or brash roaring and crashing or sheer musical nonsense. With Mozart, with few means, says everything a listener could desire to be refreshed and truly entertained and edified, the others use all the means at their disposal to say absolutely nothing.

Strauss's homage to Mozart is demonstrated by his first acknowledged masterpiece, the Serenade, Op. 7. In its instrumentation, it bears distinct resemblance to Mozart's Gran Partita, K. 370a. While basset horns were no longer in fashion, Strauss includes two flutes. The rest is the same: pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, four horns and a single bass instrument (string bass or contrabassoon.) While very little is known of the circumstances surrounding the composition of the Serenade, it was the first Strauss work performed in public. von Bulow, who led that premiere, stated at the time, "The Serenade, Op. 7 by Richard Strauss exhibits the virtuosity of our players in the most brilliant light. I make no qualifications regarding its acceptance." The conductor was more than willing to put his money where his mouth was, for he would perform the Serenade no fewer than seven times over the next two years.

The work is classical in its form, nearly a perfect example of sonata-allegro. Strauss demonstrates some of the orchestrational prowess that would bring him fame (and actually it did with the Serenade). But enough of my talk; here's the piece, performed by members of the Czech Philharmonic. There are lots of recordings to be found through a simple Google search, including a nice job by our own U. S. Marine Band. But for me, I like the earthy sounds of the Central and Eastern Europeans.

Need sublimity in your life? Here goes:

Thursday, February 23, 2017

WOW! It's Carnaval!

Just a few weeks ago, I (and many others) received an email from a colleague in the music business announcing that the Alfred Music Company, one of an increasingly dwindling number of publishers, was going to allow H. Owen Reed's La Fiesta Mexicana to go out of print and become permanently unavailable.


These kinds of business decisions are being made every day. Yes, it's expensive to keep inventory on the shelves. There are definitely advantages to getting things out of the door before the tax man cometh. And Alfred is not alone. Another firm, Hal Leonard, which seems to own practically everything else, is especially egregious. But that's another story for another day. Back to La Fiesta (without mentioning Alfred--at least for a few moments).

The composer, H. Owen Reed, was trained at Louisiana State University, where he received Bachelor's and Master's Degrees in Music AND a B.A. in French! From there, he moved on to the Eastman School, earning a Ph.D. in composition in 1939. Post-graduate studies included work with Roy Harris, Bohuslav Martinu, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein. That's a pretty decent pedigree.

Reed's earliest masterwork was the result of a Guggenheim Fellowship that took him to Mexico for six months in 1948-49. An immersion into the native music of that country eventually led to La Fiesta Mexicana: A Mexican Folk-Song Symphony. Herein, Reed interweaves aspects of Aztec, Roman Catholic, and mariachi music, often quoting tunes verbatim, into a work of profound depth, imbued with rhythmic invention, and colorful orchestration.

About the first movement, "Prelude and Aztec Dance," Reed tells us:

The tolling of the church bells and the bold noise of fireworks at midnight officially announce the opening of the fiesta (opening pages of the score). Groups of Mexicans from near and far slowly descend upon the huge court surrounding the old cathedral–some on foot, some by burro, and still others on bleeding knees, suffering out of homage to a past miracle.

After a brave effort at gaiety, the celebrators settle down on their serapes to a restless night (No. 1) until the church bells and fireworks again intrude upon the early quiet of the Mexican morn.

At midday, a parade is announced by the blatant blare of trumpets (No. 5). A band is heard in the distance (No. 6). The attention is focused on the Aztec dancers, brilliantly plumed and masked, who dance in an ever-increasing frenzy to a dramatic climax.

II. Mass

The tolling of the bells is now a reminder that the fiesta is, after all, a religious celebration. The rich and poor slowly gather within the walls of the old cathedral for contemplation and worship. The closing of the movement is especially poignant: an offstage horn intones a chant, signaling the final benediction, which is answered by the "congregation" in a final "Amen."

III. Carnival

Mexico is at its best on the days of the fiesta, a day on which passion governs the love, hate and joy of the Mestizo and the Indio. There is entertainment for both young and old–the itinerant circus (first part of the movement), the market, the bull fight, the town band, and always the cantinas with their band of mariachis on the day of days: fiesta.

La Fiesta Mexicana is, with little doubt, among the outstanding musical tributes to that country ever composed, regardless of medium. With great skill, Reed worked to honestly portray the native tunes in their original incarnations (I will admit, that the Quad City Wind Ensemble has played around with the rhythm in one of the mariachi melodies to sound more authentic.)

But what of Alfred Music? With pressure from their customers, they have relented and agreed to continue publishing this great work AND are combing through their holdings to free other outstanding wind pieces from the bondage of the dreaded POP (permanently out of print).

La Fiesta Mexicana is included on this weekend's concert of the Quad City Wind Ensemble ( Along with Moncayo, Marquez, and others, it's going to be great fun! So, in you find yourself in Iowa.....

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

A belated WOW: Reveling in a "Rusty Squeezebox"

I began this post on Mozart's birthday (January 27). Once I had written way too much (my discussion had gotten extremely technical and academic), I trashed it. So here is another try.

"On the page, it looked nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse. Bassoons and basset horns, like a rusty squeezebox. And then suddenly, high above it, an oboe. A single note, hanging there, unwavering. Until a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I'd never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling. It seemed to me that I was hearing the voice of God."

F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri
Thus begins the first discussion (and the appearance) of Mozart's music in the multiple Academy Award-winning film, Amadeus. The piece? Serenade, K. 371 (370a), better known as the Gran Partita. In seven glorious movements and clocking in at about 50 minutes, it is Mozart's longest purely instrumental composition.

It is part of a wind music tradition dating back centuries, from public tower concerts, known as ablassen, to the court bands maintained by many of the wealthy patrons of the Classical era. Beginning as sextets (pairs of oboes, horns, and bassoons), the introduction of the clarinet established what would become the standard wind octet. Composers would write original music for these Harmoniemusik ensembles, and scores of arrangers would take up the tunes of the popular operas of the day. The sounds of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Magic Flute, and much more filled the streets as well as the opera houses.

But Mozart took the ensemble several steps further, writing for pairs of oboes, clarinets, and basset horns, four horns, two bassoons, and contrabassoon (or contrabass). The sonic possibilities here are much more numerous, and Mozart exploits them to the fullest.

It has been surmised that Mozart wrote the Gran Partita as a wedding gift to Constanze in 1781. However, given that Emperor Joseph II founded his famous wind group in 1782, as well as other contradictory evidence, I posit that it was written sometime between 1783 and 1785. But, in terms of WOW, that is totally unimportant. 

The first movement is in true Sonata-Allegro form, within an amazing introduction. That, in itself, sets the stage for what is to come. Played by a Scottish "band" here it is:

Jumping ahead to the third movement (the "rusty squeezebox"), it is easy to become enraptured by the glorious sounds. The impact of the basset horns is beyond measure; with all of these darker-hued colors, we are awash in richness. Here we are with Sir Neville Mariner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields.

There are many joys that await listeners with an hour to spare. And here are some selected recordings.
  • The Vienna Philharmonic Players, Furtwangler (1947)
  • Amadeus Winds, Hogwood
  • London Winds, Michael Collins (2010)
  • Netherlands Wind Ensemble, De Waart (2011)
and many, many more. Check out www.arkivmusic for details.


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A photo of WOW! Polished gems hidden from sight.

I am currently working on editing a brief study on anti-German sentiments during World War 1. This particularly pertains to musicians and musical organizations. While the travails of the Boston Symphony and its Music Director, Karl Muck, are relatively well known, equally as heinous were events in Chicago (more on that sometime later).

While researching one of the "principals" in the scandal, I came across mention of recitals held in the "Music Hall, Fine Arts Building." The building I know well as the home of the Fine Arts Cafe as well as Bein and Fushi, one of the world's premiere dealers in high-end string instruments. The hall? I'll admit I know practically nothing at all, although the building used to house a low-end triplex for art films and other entertainments.

Renovations have taken place; the triplex is gone, and the original hall--known as the Studebaker Theater--has been restored. Walking down Michigan Avenue (as I have done countless times) you'd never know it was there.

And down the street, around the corner, and across from the Hilton is this splendid palace.

The Merle Reskin Theater of DePaul University
(formerly the Blackstone Theater)
I know that I'll be checking these out the next time I'm in the city. They are full of history and now, returned to their glory.

Friday, January 20, 2017

WOW addendum: My programming

In this week's discussion of transcriptions, I believe that I made known my feelings on the subject. What was left out, however, was any sample of the type of concert program I would offer. Here's a couple:

Brian L. Hughes, Music Director and Conductor
Sunday, October 26, 2014     3:00 p.m., St. Ambrose University

Oh the Places We’ll Go!

Via Appia

Star-Spangled Banner     John Stafford Smith, arr. Jack Stamp

Smetana Fanfare     Karel Husa
Slavonic Rhapsody, No. 1, Op. 104     Carl Friedemann, arr. Mayhew Lake

Rose Variations     Robert Russell Bennett 
Kurt Dupois, "The President's Own" U.S.M.C. Band, soloist

(Encore:  Leroy Anderson: Trumpeter’s Lullaby)

Azcárraga, Pasodoble Fallero     Richard Scott Cohen
Charles B. DCamp, Conductor Emeritus


Toccata Marziale     Ralph Vaughan Williams

The Hornet’s Nest     Ralph Hultgren

The Pines of the Appian Way from Pines of Rome     Ottorino Respighi, arr. Leidzen
(Encore: Meredith Willson/Iwai: 76 Trombones)

* * * * * * * * * *

Brian L. Hughes, Music Director and Conductor
Saturday, May 13, 2017     7:30 p.m., St. Ambrose University

Heroic Measures

Star-Spangled Banner     John Stafford Smith, arr. Jack Stamp

Spitfire Prelude and Fugue     William Walton, arr. Noble

A Movement for Rosa     Mark Camphouse

“Siegfried’s Funeral Music,” from Götterdämmerung     Richard Wagner, arr. Whear 


“Parade of the Charioteers,” from Ben-Hur     Miklos Rosza, arr. Hawkins

A Hymn for the Lost and the Living     Eric Ewazen

Student soloist: TBA

David     Stephen Melillo

It's looking like I'm split somewhere down the middle. That's probably not a bad place to be.

See you Monday. Hoping something WOW's me by then!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Everything's up to date in......Detroit?

Pillaged by fire and crime, Detroit has struggled for over 60 years
Back in 2013, the city became the largest municipality in the nation to declare bankruptcy. Concerning population, Detroit has lost 61% of its residents since 1950 (down from 1.8 million to 700,000). The public schools have become, individually and collectively, an educational nightmare, guided by one of Michigan's emergency managers (this guy used to be in Flint) as well as administrators who have ended up in jail after bribery charges and convictions. A tumultuous work stoppage at the Symphony (DSO) dragged on for months. Could things get any worse?

Financial straits are still dire, and the schools still suffer. There are signs that the population has begun to stabilize, and new construction and renovation of old are combining to offer a renaissance of this once great city. The city was recently named one of the "52 Places to Go in 2017" by the New York Times. Challenges remain, but many community leaders in the public and private sectors are meeting them head on.

The once crime laden "Cass Corridor" is morphing into "The District."
Anchored by the new ice arena, it will include easy access to all of
Detroit's professional sports venues, theaters, loads of restaurants,
and lots more reasons to come into the city.
In the fall, the DSO announced the formation of an adult amateur ensemble, expanding the organization's educational components to a new group of stakeholders. In financial terms, Crain's Detroit Business is boasting a "resounding success" for both the DSO and the Michigan Opera Theater. The symphony ended the fiscal year over $130,000 in the black. Individual donors are up over 30%, surpassing 10,000, up from 7,000 last year. Gifts earmarked for the endowment were over $5.1 million.

Detroit's magnificent Orchestra Hall, reclaimed in 1989
As a result, the orchestra and its musicians negotiated a new three-year contract, achieved well ahead (eight months) of the end of the current agreement. According to the Detroit News, the terms include:
  • A 4-percent raise by 2020, the last year of the contract, lifting base pay from $91,259 to $96,096.
  • A stipend to tide them over in the 10 unpaid, nonperformance weeks, so they don’t have to file for unemployment insurance.
  • More flexible work rules boosted the number of performance weeks from 36 to 38 and will shoulder more of any increases in health-insurance premiums. The number of musicians will stay at 87, well beneath the 96 before 2011.
DSO Music Director Leonard Slatkin has been the catalyst behind much of the orchestra's rebirth and growth. He has made a significant commitment to American music and the orchestra's Carnegie Hall concerts, including all four symphonies of Charles Ives, garnered praise from the oft-critical New York press. A little over a year ago, Slatkin announced that he would be leaving the DSO at the conclusion of the 2017-18 season, offering the organization plenty of time for a search, hire, and transition to a new leader.

In July, the orchestra will embark on its first international tour since 2001, presenting eleven concerts in China and Japan. One would expect the repertoire to include (unlike too many other U.S. orchestras) a healthy dose of American music and the Detroiters do not disappoint. According to the DSO website, Asian audiences will hear Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Bernstein’s Candide Overture, Cindy McTee’s Double Play, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

It was a long decline from the city's heyday in 1950 to its nadir in 2013. But things are looking up all over. People are starting to believe in their city and at least some of its prestigious institutions. One hopes that this will carry over to the Detroit Public Schools. Change has to start somewhere and new minds, new leaders, can start to make that change work.

Monday, January 16, 2017

WOW! Thou shalt not perform transcriptions

I have had a number of mentors in my conducting training. As a whole, they could be broken down into a few different groups:

  • Those who refuse to perform transcriptions. "There's too much great original literature written for the wind band; why play a transcription of an orchestral work?" These are usually the wind ensemble guys, and they really don't like marches either.
  • Those who play transcriptions, transcriptions, and more transcriptions, with a march tossed in for variety. "These are the warhorses that I grew up with; if they are good enough for me, they're good enough for my students! Hrumph!"
  • Those who fall somewhere in-between. The transcriptions are not "bread and butter" of programming, but are included for reasons to be discussed below.
As conductors, we are products of our education and those teachers who encouraged us to rise up to challenges of the repertoire and to the students in our care. I have been fortunate to study with some of our finest pedagogues in both the short and long terms. Suffice to say, nearly all have been extremely opinionated about one or more facets of our art. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as long as the advice does not force exclusionary tactics into our own teaching and repertoire choices.

Lest I drift away from the point, here is a program of a concert by the John Philip Sousa band:


What fun! Sousa concerts often included overtures that were well-known orchestral works (Berlioz's Roman Carnival was a favorite) or other pieces that had fallen by the wayside. Soloists always appeared: this concert had three(!): the usual cornetist, sometimes a violinist, and always, one of Sousa's "ladies in white" singing a tune or two. Here we have works by Chopin, Sarasate, Percy Grainger, and the "well-known composer," Preston Ware Orem. Sprinkled throughout were a large number of encores, almost always a Sousa march. These were introduced by a lovely young woman who placed a large placard containing the title on an easel. Needless to say, this is much different than standard concert fare.

The Bill Revelli everyone "knew and loved."
He and Kruschev probably got along well.
The University of Michigan Symphony Band, as noted in programs from its groundbreaking tour of the Soviet Union in 1961, performed a large number of transcriptions. Just a handful include:
  • Rimsky-Korsakov: Procession of the Nobles (almost unheard of in orchestra halls)

  • Respighi: The Pines of Rome

  • Wagner: "Elsa's Procession to the Cathedral," from Lohengrin
  • Kabalevsky: Comedian's Galop
The transcription is part of the heritage of the wind band. Audiences in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries couldn't hear the "masterworks" unless they lived near a city large enough to support a symphony orchestra. That left it up to the great touring bands, as well as the burgeoning community band movement, to provide a vital part of America's musical education (and lots of entertainment. Compare the Sousa program above with a typical university band concert:

(from November 2016):

George Friderich (sic) Handel: Music for the Royal Fireworks

D. J. Sparr: Cloud of Witnesses

Michael Daugherty: Reflections on the Mississippi (tuba and wind ensemble)

Henry Brant: Whoopee in D for a very fine orchestra

Morton Gould: Symphony No. 4, West Point

All original works for the contemporary wind band (except Handel). Individually, some excellent moments I am sure, but collectively? I'm trying to figure out if I'd want to shell out money to hear this? And the sacrilege: not a march to be heard.

I have few negatives to offer about the playing of transcriptions unless they sound downright silly. Once I listened to a very talented ensemble perform 1812 Overture about as well as a band probably could. It sounded ridiculous. Berlioz is hard to pull off but Wagner is made for the wind band, and so are works by composers who have been lost to time:

Giuseppe Verdi was composing "marches by the hundreds" long before he aspired to write an opera. Rimsky-Korsakov held a civilian post as Inspector of Naval Bands. There are many more.

It all boils down to one main point. For whom are we playing? Our own egos? Or the (often) paying public? I'm not even suggesting trying to pander to an audience; rather, my axiom is to educate them without knowing it. Fans will show their support in many ways: boisterous applause, stunned silence during which no one wants to break "the moment," and with their feet. It's almost as easy to run them out of the hall if all they hear is esoteric programming. BUT, on the other hand, if you build it, they will come.

Monday, January 9, 2017

This week's Moment of WOW!

As many know, I inhabit a number of different musical worlds, as a teacher, conductor, and erstwhile scholar. But I can even create subsets there, as I have conducted choral, wind, and orchestral ensembles (often, my bands and orchestras forget that I was once a "throat"). There is one big characteristic that the instrumental folk share: they are snobs.

Yes, a number of my orchestra friends look down upon the bands of American. "All they play are marches. No Beethoven symphonies nor Mozart concertos!" AND (horror of horrors) they march--outside! Note to orchestral wind players: you didn't develop all that technique by playing third heckelphone in the Pumpkin Center Philharmonic. Some of the finest wind players on this continent have one thing in common: many played in our Armed Service Bands. And another note: there's more to band than Sousa (for whom I make no apology) and Drum Corps International.

But let's mention, albeit briefly, Sousa marches played by orchestras. They sound ridiculous: the editions are always in the wrong key and the re-scoring lacks any intent of the composer. PLUS, orchestra conductors just play them too damn fast; it's kind of like, "this is easy, let's get it over as quickly as we can."

Then again, lots of band folk, particularly band directors (only the hoity-toity "wind ensemble guys," in their ubiquitous turtle necks, are called "conductor"), refuse to play transcriptions. There are even some--gasp--who refuse to play marches. A couple of years ago, I was glancing through a tour program of what has been (and still is) a fine band program. In the annotations, the conductor (roughly my age) admitted that he's never conducted The Liberty Bell. What? You ask. Seems impossible to me, and--honestly--I would probably never admit to it in public. Wind and orchestra conductors are stuck in the mindset that, if a composition is short and popular, it must be crap. How so not true.

The march is the only musical form indigenous to the wind band; it's as simple as that. Without delving into extreme minutia (as we musicologists are prone to do), let's accept the Britannica definition:

March, originally, musical form having an even metre (in 2/4 or 4/4) with strongly accented first beats to facilitate military marching; many later examples, while retaining the military connotation, were not intended for actual marching. And, let's be honest, they're not just written for military bands: I can think of a march in Beethoven's Eroica symphony and another in Chopin's B-flat minor Sonata. There's the March to the Scaffold (Berlioz), Mendelssohn's Wedding March, and so many more.

But to this conductor--with an occasional turtleneck--there are a limited number of different kinds of marches: concert marches, quick-step marches, funeral marches (and more in this vein) and the be-all and end-all of the genre: the Helluva march.

But let's start with Sousa, who wrote 130-some marches, depending on how one counts. One of his earliest, Revival March (1876) was written for the Philadelphia Orchestra! There are also some others that have been uncovered in steamer trunks with parts strewn everywhere and even one tucked away for decades on the shelves of the Library of Congress. Needless to say, there's a lot more than Stars and Stripes Forever. But exactly what did the old man (and his wife) favor over all the rest?

Sousa's Favorite? It's said to be Semper Fidelis, penned at the end of his career with the U. S. Marine Band, "The President's Own." It's a march without a "dogfight," that ferocious strain tucked in amongst statements of the (frequently) lyrical trio. But Sousa make up for it in that fantastic trio: it's first stated by the trumpets as a kind of bugle call; the second time adds woodwind flourishes, and the third time (!) the low brasses sound forth in a commanding countermelody. Put it all together and it sounds something like this:


Performed by the Tri-State Wind Symphony, Brian Hughes conducting. c. 2015

But what of Mrs. Sousa's favorite? Probably not The Fairest of the Fair, the composition of which was prompted by a pretty girl at one of the Sousa band's concerts. According to the Sousa's daughter Helen, her mother's favorite was The Thunderer, composed in 1889. This performance by "The President's Own." If you've never heard them, sit back and enjoy.

The United States Marine Band, Lt. Col. Jason K. Fettig, conducting. January 2015.

Then there is the "Bohemian Sousa", Julius Fucik. We've done more to bastardize this poor fellow than nearly any other. It has long been a tradition to perform his Entry of the Gladiators under the big top and play it like a galop. That's really too bad, but thanks to the evils of tradition, if it's done right, people will complain, "But it's so slow." So let's go with Florentiner; nah, that one's well known too. Here's one (Fucik's Opus 360--he was a prolific guy) that is one of his least known. But it, like many others here, is a helluva march: Gigantic.

The Quad City Wind Ensemble, Brian Hughes, Conductor. c. 2016

One must include at least one composition of Iowa's march king, Karl, that is. I'll admit that I've not always been a King fan, partly again began one of his best marches is played too fast! Every circus march is not a galop and this one, Barnum and Bailey's Favorite, when approached with the care it deserves (there's a lot going on here), is truly a masterpiece.

The Quad City Wind Ensemble, Brian Hughes, Conductor
Iowa Bandmasters Association Conference, May 2014

We have not even scratched the surface. This link will lead in several directions, but one needs to hear a lot of them to grasp a composer's style. It's kind of like discovering Beethoven; the only real way is by listening to all the string quartets. That's a lot of listening. Instead, visit the U.S. Marine Band website and download the first three volumes of their "Complete Sousa Marches." They've got 55 edited and recorded and--the best part--they're absolutely FREE. Best use of our tax dollars I can think of (besides education).

Here's one more. I offer it just because it's a long time favorite and indicative of a different style: the concert march.

Written for his (and my) music fraternity, here's The Sinfonians, played by the 125-strong UW-Madison University Band, a whole bunch of non-majors. I think they're pretty good.