The repertory for concert bands and larger wind ensembles draws from many sources and nations, but when one contemplates in the abstract hearing a concert of band or wind ensemble music, one is likely to imagine the doughty marching band of military provenance, as filtered down to the level of the River City Boys’ Band in The Music Man. It is consequently with enormous gratitude that Boston has such pillars of musical integrity and imagination such as the NEC Wind Ensemble and the Boston Conservatory Wind Ensemble, the latter of which, under Eric Hewitt, presented a fully satisfying program of mostly unorthodox works (one a premiere) on September 18th at the BoCo Theater. The concert was also a tribute to the late Gunther Schuller, with whom Hewitt had studied, as did composer Thomas Oboe Lee, whose Octet received its premiere.
The military aspect of band repertoire got its backhanded due in the Soldier’s Mass by Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928), probably Finland’s most famous composer after Sibelius. Written in 1968, it occupies an odd position in Rautavaara’s output, since he had already written his serial Symphony No. 4, and was flirting with avant-garde idioms, but this piece was either a throwback to earlier styles or a precursor of his later ones. In four movements that invoke four sections of the Catholic Requiem Mass, at the same time it employs martial flourishes that one has to interpret variously as wrathful condemnation (in the first movement, “The Lord of Battles—Kyrie”) or satire (in the third movement, “On the Fields of Glory—Gloria”). Between these is a Miserere full of darkly sonorous clouds, giving way to impassioned outbursts before receding. The finale, “At Death’s Door—In Hora Mortis,” is the only movement of extended length, a dead march building passionately to something ecstatic like the finale of Ives’s Fourth Symphony. The performance by the ensemble was assured and committed, with a special shout-out to the trumpet soloist Matthew Nishida. Hewitt kept the momentum up and shaped Rautavaara’s phrases with economy and precision.
The first half ended with BoCo faculty member Markus Placci as soloist in the remarkable Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra, op. 12 (well, there were a few contrabasses, but we’ll overlook that) by the 24-year-old Kurt Weill. This was Weill’s last big orchestral work before writing The Threepenny Opera, and it bristles with the wit and iconoclastic enthusiasm one loves in Weill, though not quite yet with his pop-inflected mordancy. The opening movement is a set of variations on a somewhat Schoenbergian theme, whose working-out sometimes lacks variety of tempo and affect, but contains a plethora of textures that Placci navigated with a full tone and effortless dexterity. The central movement, a tripartite Notturno-Cadenza-Serenata, has echoes of Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat before establishing a voice one recognizes as Weill’s. Kudos to the xylophonist Neil McNulty and the trumpeter freshman Matthew Compagno—the latter in a fine duet with the violin in the Cadenza. The finale, a winking charmer in 6/8 that reminded us of early Hindemith, was full of rhythmic pep.
The opening of the second half was Lee’s Requiem Octet—In Memoriam Gunther Schuller, which began its life as an homage to the Stravinsky Octet of 1923, with the same instrumentation: flute, clarinet, two bassoons, two trumpets (in C and A) and two trombones (tenor and bass). When Schuller died while Lee was at work on it, he rededicated it to his mentor and discovered that the melodic material he had so far written would set well to the Latin Requiem text. He therefore continued along those lines, and even printed the text in the score as a guide for the performers. At the same time, he kept to a kind of Stravinskyan approach to the instruments’ sonorities, so staccato punctuation accompanies lyrical melodies, while several movements (there are eight) emit puffs of jazz and the blues (hat tip to Schuller’s cross-fertilizing campaigns), making in one case for a rather odd Dies Irae. Another lovely movement (the fourth) hints at the broadly chorale-like Americanism of Roy Harris, while the seventh counterposes Bachian tootling with the independent Colonial spirit of William Billings. The only miscue we found was in the finale: the trumpets, from offstage, responded with single-note benedictions to arpeggiated figures in the other instruments, which we found a bit flat inspirationally. Overall, though, this is a strong work, well performed by the (again, sadly uncredited) ensemble, which Hewitt led with restrained eloquence.
The final work was the only one on the program one could call standard rep for wind ensembles, the Variations for Band in G Minor, Op. 43a (1943; the orchestral version is op. 43b) by Arnold Schoenberg. One of a handful of late works in which Schoenberg reverted to tonality, albeit of the highly chromatic kind that informed his earliest compositions, this was commissioned by his publisher to be something practical that student or amateur ensembles could tackle. Although a perfectly admirable piece in its own right, its black-swan-ness assures it a place in any band’s portfolio. Hewitt led the immense ensemble (seriously, they nearly overflowed the stage) in a rounded, mellifluous reading, though sometimes giving the rhythms little breathing room.
The long program ended with an encore, the finale, called “Parody,” to Schuller’s divertimento for band On Winged Flight (1989), which Schuller described as having been written “with a respectful bow to Messrs. Charles Ives, James Reese Europe, and Henry Fillmore.” A typically Schulleresque farrago of names for a riotous potpourri of styles, and a perfect reflection of Schuller’s eclectic genius, which Hewitt and the ensemble carried off with high panache.