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.

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