John Mackey (b. 1973) once famously compared the band and the orchestra to the kind of girl a composer might meet at a party. The orchestra seems like she ought to be your ideal woman, but she clearly feels superior to you and talks a lot about her exes (like Dvorak and Beethoven). The band, meanwhile, is loud and brash, but loves everything you do and can’t wait to play your stuff, the newer, the better! (I’ve rather poorly paraphrased Mackey – it’s best understood in his original blog post on the subject).
With this attitude and his prodigious talent, John Mackey has become a superstar composer among band directors. He has even eclipsed his former teacher, John Corigliano, by putting out more than a dozen new band works, including a symphony, since 2005. All are challenging, and all are innovative. Mackey’s works for wind ensemble and orchestra have been performed around the world, and have won numerous composition prizes. His Redline Tango, originally for orchestra and then transcribed by the composer for band, won him the American Bandmasters Assocation/Ostwald Award in 2005, making him, then 32, the youngest composer ever to recieve that prize. He won again in 2009 with Aurora Awakes. His compositional style is fresh and original. I once heard him state that he counted the band Tool among his musical influences.
John Mackey publishes his own music through Osti Music. The website for this company doubles as his personal website and his blog, which is very informative for anyone looking for a composer’s perspective on new music. He is featured on wikipedia and the Wind Repertory Project. He is also on Twitter 20 or so times a day. And he has a Facebook composer page.
Mackey wrote Harvest: Concerto for Trombone in 2009. It was commissioned by a consortium of bands organized by Chris Wilhjelm of the Ridgewood Concert Band and LTC Timothy Holtan of the West Point Military Academy and their famous band. It was written as a feature for Joseph Alessi, principal trombonist of the New York Philharmonic, and premiered by the West Point Band in March, 2010. Mackey provides his own program notes:
Harvest: Concerto for Trombone is based on the myths and mystery rituals of the Greek god Dionysus. As the Olympian god of the vine, Dionysus is famous for inspiring ecstasy and creativity. But this agricultural, earth-walking god was also subjected each year to a cycle of agonizing death before glorious rebirth, analogous to the harsh pruning and long winter the vines endure before blooming again in the spring. The concerto’s movements attempt to represent this dual nature and the cycle of suffering and return.
The concerto is set in three connected sections, totaling approximately 18 minutes. The first section begins with a slow introduction, heavy on ritualistic percussion, representing the summoning of Dionysus’s worshippers to the ceremony. The rite itself builds in intensity, with Dionysus (represented, of course, by the solo trombone) engaging in call and response with his followers, some of whom are driven to an ecstatic outcry — almost a “speaking in tongues” –represented by insistent woodwind trills. But when Dionysus transitions to a gentler tone, his frenzied worshippers do not follow. Their fervor overcomes them, and they tear their god to shreds in an act of ritual madness.
This brutal sacrifice by the ecstatic worshippers — the pruning of the vine — is followed without pause by the second section, representing Dionysus in the stillness of death, or winter. The god is distant, the music like a prayer.
The shoots of spring burst forth in the final section, following again without pause. The earth is reborn as Dionysus rises again, bringing the ecstasy and liberation that have been celebrated in his name for centuries.
Harvest: Concerto for Trombone is dedicated to Joseph Alessi.
Mackey scored Harvest for orchestral winds (sorry, saxes), brass (sorry, euphists), and percussion plus harp, piano, and string bass. While it has been widely played by America’s top wind ensembles, its orchestra-friendly instrumentation has seen it played beyond the wind band sphere in such places as the Cabrillo Festival (which described it as “scored for solo trombone and orchestra without strings”), where legendary maestra Marin Alsop conducted.
You can look at the score and hear a recording of the piece at Mackey’s website. You can also read about the piece at the Wind Repertory Project. Mackey also talks in some detail about the piece on his very candid blog, including features on the original concept for the concerto, working with Joe Alessi, and the premiere.
Those who are averse to clicking a link can hear Harvest via YouTube here, as performed by Alessi and the West Point Band:
The rest of the commissioning consortium includes:
The Ridgewood Concert Band, The West Point Military Academy Band, University of Texas at Austin, United States Air Force Academy, Illinois State University, University of Florida, Miami University, University of Georgia, Texas Tech University, Case Western Reserve University, Ithaca College, University of South Carolina, University of Washington, Roxbury High School, University of South Florida, Florida State University, Baylor University, Syracuse University, McNeese State University, Arizona State University, University of Alabama.