In 1968, a time swept by great social change, Gunther Schuller, the then new NEC President—and a brass player as well as composer—was confronted by a group of students who asked why there was not a wind ensemble at the conservatory. That meeting spawned action that rapidly led to the birth of the NEC Wind Ensemble. In the half-century since its first season, the ensemble—and its in-house offshoots—have become central to NEC. This past Thursday, Charles Peltz, current Director of Wind Ensemble Activities at NEC and conductor, together with various constellations of players, initiated a celebratory 50th season by reprising its wide-ranging first-ever concert from 1969. Obviously newer back then, the assemblage of works, still vibrantly relevant, encapsulated the breadth and promise of music for winds, brass and percussion, leaving a contemporary audience of wind devotees begging for more.
According to Michael Steinberg, Richard Strauss (1864-1949) wrote his Serenade in E-flat Major (Opus 7) in 1882 before he was Richard Strauss—he was a teenager when it was premiered under the baton of Franz Wüllner in Dresden at Hotel zu den drei Raben that November. Opening the concert, this short, mellifluous work offers sweet memories. It was likely inspired by Strauss’s masterful and admired father—the principal horn in Munich’s Bavarian Court Opera— and sounded here with individualistic exuberance, as performance excitement and volume occasionally edged out full collaboration.
Vincent Persichetti’s 1956 Symphony for Band, influential for many composers since, was to have been conducted by the revered and beloved NEC Wind Ensemble Founder and Emeritus Conductor, Frank Battisti; but, alas, Battisti was ill. However, he sent an articulate and heartfelt message, and, beyond that, Battisti mapped the arrangement of the players, with percussion section in the center and the winds stage right and brass stage left, providing an impressive antiphonal arrangement of instrumentalists. Still, it would have been special to directly experience his vision of the work, with its four movements, featuring many players. Here, the first Adagio allegro, with its slow initial section horn solo and then scale-step passage fueled the allegro. Here the horn section shone. The lyrical Adagio sostenuto, based on Round Me Falls the Night from Persichetti’s own Hymns and Responses for the Church Year, resonated. Increasingly upbeat, the Allegretto’s trio lent a dance-like mood, and the final Vivace’s rollicking rondo reintroduced themes from earlier in the piece with a 12-tone ending, which challenged, yet enchanted.
The Ingolf Dahl concerto for alto sax and wind ensemble, in its entirety, is a signal work, recorded in the past by Ken Radnofsky, among others. The ensemble and soloist Bennett Parsons, MM ’19, proffered the sparkling third movement Rondo alla Marcia: Allegro Brioso jauntily. The soloist seemed delighted, uplifting the orchestra and audience. I wished the entire work had been played, as the opening Recitative is unique and connected without pause to the impressive Passacaglia. Dahl’s concerto has deceptively familiar and traditional harmonies, yet the offbeat rhythms lend a compelling freshness. The alto saxophone as a solo instrument has been underappreciated and stands out in the Dahl, and one hopes its exciting aspects are increasingly leveraged in other works. If so, I would think Parsons has a future as a soloist!
Designs, Images and Textures (Five Pieces by Concert Band) by Leslie Bassett lives up to its name, involving impressive instrumental arrays. The work allowed the ensemble playing to shine. I wished it had been Ten Pieces…
Paul Hindemith composed his Symphony in B-flat Major for Band in 1951, and it was premiered that April, with Hindemith himself conducting a U.S. Army Band (“Pershing’s Own”). It was not greeted with high regard, being called “singularly dead” by mid-20th Century critic, Richard Franko Goldman, who was a bandmaster as well. Not so at this exciting and refreshing concert; it left a good aftertaste that seemed shared by the audience.
Here’s hoping that this golden-anniversary year for the NEC Wind Ensemble will gather steam and get to standing-room-only proportions. The next concert is November 5th.