in: Reviews

October 11, 2012

BoCo Wind Ensemble’s 20th Century Cornucopia


The Boston Conservatory Wind Ensemble performed a varied program of music for winds and percussion at the Fenway Center on Saturday the sixth. Featuring a mix of original wind ensemble compositions and arrangements from orchestral works by John Adams, Berio, Varèse, Peter Mennin, Messiaen, and Shostakovich the selections covered nearly every imaginable corner of 20th-century aesthetics — a feat rarely achieved by student ensembles.

John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine is a lively fanfare, programmed as often in its original symphonic version as in this well-adapted wind ensemble arrangement. A relentless woodblock carries the ensemble through a compelling series of metric modulations, which were navigated convincingly by conductor Eric Hewitt and the percussion section. Although this arrangement without strings lacks the rounded blend of the symphonic version, there is a certain compensation: a visceral, aggressive quality from replacing the string parts with saxophones. The piece is no doubt a favorite of brass players, as it shows of their technical abilities as well as the raw power of their sound in the more intense sections of the piece.

Berio’s O King and  Varèse’s Integrales exist in different aesthetic corners of European modernism, both of which are rarely embraced by the wind ensemble and concert band world. O King has a number of versions, one of which is a symphonic arrangement that Berio integrated into his seminal orchestral work, Sinfonia. This arrangement was created for the Harvard University Wind Ensemble in 1977, about a decade after the original chamber version.  The piece meditates on cycles of pitches, played here by a marvelously controlled and musically sensitive brass section, featuring trumpet soloist Brian Garland.  Intégrales is more angular, with series of jabbing percussive attacks and sharp, penetrating sounds underpin a piercing B-flat passed between the clarinet and trumpet. The performance was intense and evocative, and effective in drawing the listener in to a convincing path of musical objects arranged in a very non-traditional narrative (the composer would likely have taken issue with using the word “narrative” at all).

By sharp contrast, Peter Mennin’s Canzona offers a blend for the larger ensemble, with rolling rhythms, dancing melodies, and a harmonic system somewhere between Stravinsky and Grainger. While Canzona is the more typical style of American wind band repertoire, the piece is not without subtlety and charm. Messiaen’s Éclairs sur l’au-dela (the ensemble performed movements I and VI) draws inspiration from the composer’s eschatological musings. The harmony and counterpoint is evocative of much of Messiaen’s organ music, but with the broad color and dynamic range of a full-fledged ensemble of winds. The ensemble’s performance of Éclairs possessed some of the most powerful moments of the evening, filling every corner of the Fenway center with the rich, complex, and deeply moving textures of Messiaen’s imagination. It was here, perhaps even more so than even the Berio, where the ensemble as a whole showed a mature level of musicianship well beyond most of its players’ years.

A favorite closer of wind ensembles, Mark Vakhutinsky’s arrangement of Shostakovich’s Folk Dances features exciting themes played at a breakneck tempo, over a the rhythmic framework of a military march. Hewitt was extremely liberal with the tempo, letting the music wind up to a near halt, then fly at the appropriate moments. The result was very exciting, possessing a dramatic impact that few performances I’ve heard (or performed in) of the piece are able to achieve. The versatility of Hewitt and his wind ensemble at Boston Conservatory is quite impressive. And the diversity of programming, covering so many spheres of music from the last century, is a great service to his student musicians and audiences alike.

Peter Van Zandt Lane is a widely performed composer of chamber, orchestral, and electroacoustic music. He is currently on faculty at Brandeis University.

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