in: Reviews

October 25, 2012

BU’s Wind Ensembles vs. Repertoire


BMInt ventured out to catch the Boston University Wind Ensemble Tuesday night at the Tsai Performance Center. The program listed over 100 student musicians who took turns performing four recently composed pieces. Presumably, conductor David J. Martins had in mind engaging these vast numbers as much as possible. He posed high velocities and amplitudes in a mix of densities and timbres that gave the young ensembles real challenges— all of which were well met.

How Martins, who is Professor of Music at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and Adjunct Professor of Music at Boston University, could take on so many students as he did for this one concert is, in and of itself, impressive. His conducting was as clear as any student would need in order to play not-so-easy parts. But he did more than just enable the kids to pull off their own parts. I could only wonder at how Martins could also pull them together into a coherent and musically sounding whole. Every student I watched appeared to be with him. Trouble for me was that the four pieces, overloaded with colors and textures, impeded or limited real appreciation of the immense student efforts. Concert music for wind ensembles still seems problematic.

Andreas Makris’s Aegean Festival Overture did feature more delineated materials and the BU Wind Ensemble performance recognized them. This music, though, has shown its age, its repetitions and especially its rhythmic predictability, I believe, kept the young musicians from making anything more than a somewhat pleasant opening statement.

Scott Lindroth’s Spin Cycle had a lot going on making it difficult to identify individual or ensemble accomplishments. But inside the spinning, horns would sound ear-alerting sonorities, and mallet instruments would breathe contrasting color. Despite the students catching onto the core riff, still not a lot of energy would come of their determination. Odd, too, that with all the layers of spinning in the blown instruments, the percussion only had straightforward interjections or punctuations.

In a programmatic hunt, James Syler’s The Hound of Heaven was all over the place reaching for this and that, which the players in turn delivered astutely, but their achieving a coherent whole was just not possible. Memorable were the fine woodwind tremolos with flutes leading the way, also the bell tree which could not stop chiming.

BU faculty member Ketty Nez’s thresholds for piano and wind ensemble received its world premiere. Pianist Pei-Yeh Tsai, herself a graduate of the University, impressed with admirable stick-to-it-ness, playing virtually non-stop in the 25-minute single movement. It was hard for me to make heads or tails out of this piece. I wondered how satisfying this smaller ensemble might have found the experience.

I would go back to hear these dedicated students, hoping next time the program would allow their voices to speak more articulately, discerningly, expressively. I welcome new music always, my point being that unlike the larger orchestral repertoire, that of the wind ensemble still needs some good breeding.

Finally, the practicing onstage before each piece only contributed further to tiring the ears.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.


  1. Dear Dr. Patterson,

    Thank you for coming to the concert! As composer of “thresholds” I am of course delighted at the special opportunity to work with the intrepid Wind Ensemble, and with David Martins their director, and Pei-Yeh Tsai. Gathering from your review, which was refreshingly honest, if I may say, with all due respect, my impression is that you are not too happy with many of the most recently evolving new music trends these days. For example, much of my piece used algorithms developed with IRCAM software, to control harmonies of canons which were controlled at various rates of imitation and duration, layered upon spectra which were increasingly stretched.

    Please keep in mind the serious challenges composers face working with performers and audiences not familiar with developments in creating a unified statement of many minds in a performance. I would be happy to correspond with you further, personally, and have only the greatest respect for your background, working with Messiaen and Boulanger!

    Comment by Ketty — October 25, 2012 at 4:22 pm

  2. p.s. I gather you are a composer too . . I would love to hear some of your own music, if you would like to share!

    Comment by Ketty — October 25, 2012 at 4:30 pm

  3. In my opinion, this review was realistic, insightful, and on the mark. The performers gave these works everything that they had, but Ms Nez’ composition seemed ill-conceived. It is my opinion that defending your work based on the complexities of its composition is no justification for its merit.

    Comment by Matthew Murdock — October 25, 2012 at 7:06 pm

  4. I’m sorry you did not enjoy the performance, and I have no problem with your personal opinion of my work, but question your use of the word “merit” – in what sense? “Merit” to the audience members listening for the first time to a new musical language? To the performers who worked very hard with me intensively developing new ways of thinking about sound mass and rates of change? To myself who realized many new things which came out during the rehearsal process I had not realized during the composing of the work? Not wishing to promote myself, I did receive many positive remarks from the performers, conductor, and audience members – should they too be printed here, and would they also count as ‘merit’?

    As this blog offers a forum for critique, the notion that one’s personal opinion holds true for others really is up for question itself.

    Comment by Ketty — October 25, 2012 at 9:54 pm

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