In a World of Common Practice, an Innovatively Thematic Concert

| 1 Comment | No TrackBacks

A few days ago, my new friend Sarah was discussing conducting with me, and she helped me realize that I favor a highly interpretational approach. The virtue of performance is that it's different every time, so I appreciate when inventive conductors find new and different ways to express the meaning of a piece. Within the bounds of the writing, of course, but a live orchestra is a unique opportunity for a different and differently engaging performance. Every time.


Tonight's concert of the University of the Pacific's Concert Band and Wind Ensemble exemplified that philosophy. Conductor Eric Hammer used the pieces as building blocks to create a dramatic arc that spanned the entire first half of the concert. The first piece, a lively Gordon Jacob overture featuring the brass section, cut off into the woodwind-heavy opening of Vaughn Williams' "Rhosymedre." This was the same Walter Beeler arrangement that I've played before, but Hammer cleanly highlighted the chorale on which the piece is based. The Concert Band played it delicately but with emotion, which isn't hard with such an inspiring theme.


Guest conductor Brian Leff followed with a Frescobaldi toccata. His delivery was impressive, full of a lot more expression than Renaissance-era pieces are typically given. Leff's conducting was full of

passion, clearly visible in his body and his baton gestures. The band easily followed Leff's expressionistic tempo and dynamics, and his clearly-defined articulations gave the piece an up-beat and engaging flair.


Robert Sheldon's "Metroplex" was next, and Hammer spared no opportunity to increase its flair. Already a fairly schlocky piece, full of traffic, blues, and the New York skyline, Hammer conducted the first section with a sharp and contemporary attitude. As the music faded into old-time jazz, the stage lighting went blue, and Hammer coolly strolled off the podium, listening contemplatively from stage left. As he hopped back up with his baton, the lights flashed red for the frantic traffic section, and then back to full for the ending. Written in 2006, "Metroplex" contains plenty of attention-grabbing modern devices, and Hammer capitalized perfectly on them to climax the first half of the concert.


The Concert Band finished their set with "Black Horse Troop," a Sousa march. After taking the podium, Hammer turned around and triumphantly declared "Sousa!," before facing the band and starting the piece. Rather lackluster, especially for Sousa, "Black Horse Troop" dragged through the first couple section, without any lively theme or counterpoint. The band highlighted this dullness by playing with exceptionally smooth articulations, wasting any opportunity for excitement and punctuation that sharp articulation could have provided. The first half would have ended in this disappointing style, had not Hammer brought back the thematic schlock (and I say that in total admiration) for a strong ending. Right on cue after the dogfight, the entire flute section stood in unison to deliver their lively counterpoint. More than just acoustically, however, the flutes' theatrics pulled the dramatic arc all the way to the end of the first half, and gave the piece (and the first half of the concert) a lot more character than a plain performance would have provided.


An overall strong performance from the Concert Band, and the narrative of their set made the music come alive for the audience. Aside from some recurring intonation issues, and a few technical hiccups, the band's emotions came through in every piece, resulting in a captivating, engaging, and interactive set.


The second half of the concert featured Pacific's Wind Ensemble. Also conducted by Dr. Hammer, this set was more technically advanced, and certainly performed at a higher caliber, but it was simply a collection of independent pieces (as most band concerts are). Most of the pieces were enjoyable, and several classics were performed, but the music's excitement came solely from the band's enlivened performance of each piece. No schlock, and no distractions. Just plain energetic music.


Beginning with Tichelli's "Nitro," the Wind Ensemble started their set with an energized bang. The music lost its energy in the thinned-out middle section, but it came back for a frenzied and powerful ending. I personally dislike this new brand of over-energized music devoid of artistic structure, and this piece falls far below Tichelli's iconic compositions, but I also know that Hammer's responsibility is to expose his Conservatory students to the full spectrum of wind band music, which accounts for a number of the pieces in the second half of the program.


The Wind Ensemble followed with Morton Gould's classic "Symphony for Band." Before starting the piece, Hammer led the audience through the piece's entire progression of themes and effects. His intention was spot-on, because most untrained listeners lose interest in new pieces when they can't recognize the themes or understand the pieces' thematic development. So I applaud Hammer's idea, which has become increasingly popular with college-level wind bands, but I'm not sure his delivery was ideal. The first few themes that he presented were fascinating, and I tucked them away on the side of my brain, eager to listen for them when the piece was played.


However, by the 15th or 16th excerpt, played sequentially as Hammer walked us through the piece, I'd lost both my interest and any ability I had to remember these melodies. I appreciated the explanations of Gould's eclectic musical devices, but I began wondering if we would ever hear the piece, especially after Hammer gave away the piece's ending. I worried that they ran out of rehearsal time, after the piece was already printed on the program, and this was Hammer's humorous way of "playing" the piece without having to play it through.


In the end, their performance of Gould's symphony was technically correct, but the piece itself was laborious to listen to. It contained a lot of pretty sounds in sequence, but the music had no drive and no recognizable theme. I did recognize Gould's gimmicks that Hammer had presented during the introduction. The second movement, a set of marches dedicated to the 150th anniversary of the West Point academy, picked up the mood considerably, with their delightfully random tunes (and 14 key signatures). Nonetheless, the audience's applause at the end seemed to involve more than a little audience relief that the piece had at last ended. 


Guest conducted Vu Nguyen conducted the Wind Ensemble's last big piece. A Philip Sparke classic, "Sunrise at Angel's Gate" has captivated me since I first heard it several years ago. Technically advanced and emotionally mature, the piece is full of close, expressive harmonies and broad gestures (not to mention complicated rhythms). Nguyen's rendering was absolutely stunning in its grandeur. He imbued the piece with no lack of emotion and purpose, but his interpretation left plenty of room for the original writing to communicate its message. Most notably, Nguyen highlighted the contours of the music, as it progressed through its carefully-constructed shape.


After thunderous applause, Nguyen breezed through an effortless performance of Grainger's "Shepherd's Hey." Thrown together (I expect) without a lot of preparation, but peppy and energetic as always, Grainger provided an appropriately lively conclusion to a concert full of dynamic moments. Credit goes to Dr. Eric Hammer for constructing a concert of such thoughtfully-connected and executed pieces.

No TrackBacks

TrackBack URL:

1 Comment

So, my cousin's name is totally Eric Hammer. I didn't think it was that common!