So I’m at the WASBE (World Association of Symphonic Bands and Ensembles) conference in sunny San Jose, California.  WASBE is about advocating for wind bands worldwide and encouraging international collaboration, and I have come for those reasons.  Naturally, I am particularly interested in repertoire, and so is WASBE: there are concerts from bands around the world this week, as well as repertoire reading sessions and presentations.  And there are people here from just about all of the band-crazy world, from the USA to Canada to Germany to Australia to Japan, and more.

San Jose is a wonderful conference site, with a fairly compact downtown that adjoins San Jose State University, whose band director Ed Harris is hosting the convention.  The hotel, concert venue, and university are all within easy walking distance of each other, and they are surrounded by restaurants.  Oddly, most of the restaurants are closed on Sundays, which made first-day dining somewhat of a challenge.  But the extremely agreeable climate made walking the streets in search of food a very pleasant experience indeed.

So far, the thrust of the conference seems to have been the “and Ensembles” part of WASBE.  The conference officially opened with a concert by the San Francisco Wind Ensemble, led by Martin Seggelke.  They played the following (note: I have not yet written about any of this music, so links will only go to composer information when I have it already up here):

Miniatur-Ouvertüre by Ernst Toch

World – Why – Die II ? by Rolf Rudin (world premiere)

Book of the Dead by Roy Magnuson (concerto for soprano saxophone featuring Paul Nolen)

Sinfonia no. 1 “Kaprekar” by Martínez Gallego

The Toch featured a small ensemble, thus opening the conference with a chamber group rather than a traditional concert band.  It was witty and noodly, as one might expect.  The rest of the pieces all used a full symphonic band.  The Gallego even added cellos, fitting with the Spanish tradition for which it was written.  Of the large pieces, the Gallego was also the most successful, coming from a melodic and contrapuntal conception, and containing a good variety of ideas and textures.  The ending sounded strongly like Clifton Williams!  At 30 minutes, it was also too long to truly hold the listener’s attention, especially in its single movement form.  The same can be said of the other large ensemble pieces.  Given that the entire program was made up of contemporary pieces, each with a unique musical language, the program would have benefited by including something from the standard repertoire or an earlier style period, if only to clean the ears of the audience for a fresh perspective on all of the new music.  That said, the SFWE was exquisitely balanced and set a very high bar for the rest of the conference.

The evening began with a reception for WASBE members at Gordon Biersch, again just walking distance from the concert hall.  This included an open bar, which is a dangerous thing in the hands of band directors!  It also included a keynote speech and performance by Jens Lindemann, an extraordinary trumpeter and educator.  He played a stunningly gorgeous version of Piazzolla’s Oblivion with the help of two hastily-recruited harpists before launching into his speech, in which he reminded us all that middle school and high school band directors often are the most inspirational figures in a young musician’s life.  That’s powerful stuff to a room full of band directors!

The evening concluded with a concert by the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra under Michael Votta.  This is not a wind orchestra in the European sense of a large, massed group, quite the opposite in fact.  This group is dedicated to chamber music, with a personnel list totaling 22 musicians.  Never did they all play at the same time, but they were cleverly deployed in collage format, with no breaks between pieces and vastly different styles and instrumentations (often solo works) juxtaposed quite successfully.  Their program looked like this:

Overture to “The Magic Flute” by WA Mozart (arr. Bastiaan Blomhert) for (basically) harmonie

Grumpy Troll by Michael Forbes for solo tuba (Craig Potter)

Fratres by Arvo Pärt (arr. Beat Brinner) for harmonie

Density 21.5 by Edgard Varese for solo flute (Caroline Rohm)

Chamber Symphony by Arnold Schoenberg for Chamber ORCHESTRA (more on that later)

(intermission)

Comix Trips by Paul Lansky for Chamber Winds

Preludia-Fantasia by Gaspar Cassadó for solo cello

Libertango by Astor Piazzolla for unconducted chamber winds

As I said already, the collage elements worked very well, though it was somewhat distracting having large groups of musicians leave the stage during the solo performances (remember, there is no “between pieces” in this setup.) The Schoenberg, which features a full string quartet plus bass, is NOT a wind piece: the strings dominate the sound consistently, despite being outnumbered by the winds.  I’d be glad to hear a chamber orchestra do it, but having it on a wind band program makes the wind players take a LITERAL back seat to the strings.  I know I am disagreeing with many a great figure on this matter (Bob Reynolds, Eugene Corporon, and of course Mike Votta, to name a few), but I think we miss what a wind band is about by programming this piece and others like it.  Moving on (off the soapbox), the highlight of the program was the Lansky, which presented fun and varied music in four movements, a symphony in all but name.  The Piazzolla was also interesting from the perspective of watching 14 young musicians play extremely well together without a conductor, but the title was misleading: it was not Piazzolla’s original Libertango, but rather a fantasy on it (that went a little long).  But it was still a strong end to a wonderfully varied and balanced program.

More to come tomorrow – stay tuned!