Today, my Midwest experience got underway in earnest. Day 1 was brief – I arrived just in time for a dinner with some wonderful colleagues, and I caught up with even more great people afterwards. I got up early this morning to make sure I didn’t miss a thing, taking in four concert and two clinics with some time to walk the legendary exhibition floor as well. Here’s how it went down:

8:30a – Southwest High School Wind Symphony

This band from a title I school had a nicely unified and well-blended sound, with impressive (if a bit careful) playing all around. Their dynamic range was particularly impressive, with excellent soft dynamics standing out. Their program consisted of:

Slavayanskaya (movement I) – Boris Kozhevnikov

The Spirit of Thanksgiving – Robert Sheldon

Don Hanna – Gabe Musella and Rick Rodriguez

Rondo from Concerto no.1, op. 73 – Carl Maria von Weber, arr. Yeago (Jon Manasse, clarinet)

Heavenwards – William Owens

Vulcan (movement III)Michael Daugherty

The Expert March – H. A. VanderCook, arr. Grauer

Nighthawk – James Swearingen

The Sussex Mummers’ Christmas CarolPercy Grainger, arr. Stotter

Marche HongroiseHector Berlioz, arr. Yo Goto

Most of the links above and below lead to other pages on this site that will discuss this music in greater detail. The Kozhevnikov is a classic that was hidden from the West for much of the Cold War, and they played it well. The Sheldon combined two Thanksgiving songs in an effective and richly harmonized slow number for younger bands. Don Hanna was an impressive contemporary take on the paso doble. The Weber is another classic that reminds one just how hard it is for a band to achieve the lightness of even the largest string section. The soloist and band were both excellent, but contemporary bands have any number of more idiomatic original clarinet concertos to choose from, and so they should. The Owens was intriguing but uneven, with some nice surprises (like that last chord) but some long predictable sections as well. The Daugherty stood in stark contrast, as colorful and rhythmically intricate as ever, with a Star Trek quote thrown in the final bars as a bonus. The snare drummers in this piece were excellent and riveting to watch. The VanderCook was like a million other marches you’ve heard. I was pleasantly surprised at the relatively intricate part writing in the Swearingen, a grade 1 work with a good deal of potential. This particular Grainger piece may be about his sixth-best slow piece – there are any number of others I would do before it. The Berlioz was an impressive closer, but it made me miss the strings, crossing my line for effective transcriptions with the Weber.

Next up, at 10:30a, was the Stiles Middle School Honor Band. They too had a wonderful sound: it almost had a recording-like sheen, along with an extremely unified approach to dynamics. Interestingly, it took me most of the show to realize that every single kid was hooked up to their own personal tuner throughout the concert. Their printed program was brief and colorful, but it did not make clear the names of the composers of each piece. This made for interesting listening at times, but I do wish that the composers had received credit in a more straightforward manner. The program consisted of:

Burma PatrolKarl King

Machine Age – Chris Bernotas

I’m Seventeen Come SundayPercy Grainger

Into the ArcticBrian Balmages

Chorale for Wind Band and Melodic Percussion – Julie Giroux

Scuttlebutt – Jim Casella

Jingle Bells! Samba Bells! – William Owens

San Antonio Dances (movement III) – Frank Ticheli


Burma Patrol was a great starter with a lot of appeal. The Bernotas reminded me a little of John Mackey’s Foundry for an even younger band. The Grainger was well-played, but for anyone who is familiar with Vaughan Williams’s English Folk Song Suite, it may have just sounded like large chunks of it were wrong. The Balmages was colorful in spots, and ended with a surprise. The Giroux started out as a very standard pretty piece, but the addition of the mallet percussion in their featured role in the second half certainly added interest. Scuttlebutt is a percussion piece that was just a bit too long, especially the “make the audience clap” section in the middle. Jingle Bells… was walking a fine line between sounding harder and easier than its actual grade 1 rating, and it never really settled. The Ticheli may have been the highlight of the program, featuring a nice Mexican-inspired swagger with significant contemporary sprinkles.

My packed afternoon began with an excellent session about performing choral transcriptions for band, featuring Don McKinney and Leila Heil from the University of Colorado at Boulder as well as high school band director Jack Yonce. They looked at the following rep:

O Magnum Mysterium – Morten Lauridsen/Reynolds

Ave Maria – Franz Biebl/Cameron

Blessed Are They – Brahm/Buehlmann

In essence, they documented the ways in which choral rehearsal techniques and methods of understanding music can make a difference in instrumental performance. For instance, they showed that speaking the text makes a big difference in instrumentalists’ understanding and performance.

This was followed by my first long line of the conference, waiting for the “Juilliard: 1996” presentation, featuring composers Eric Whitacre, John Mackey, Steve Bryant, and Jonathan Newman (apologies to Newman – I really need to get some of his excellent music on this site!). The joke went around that this was the Star Wars: Episode VII of Midwest, with a line snaking around the entire conference center before it started. This level of interest was justified: all four composers were personable and charming, and their music has done a lot to bring more positive attention to the wind band from all corners of the musical world. The highlights for me (remember this is a repertoire site!) came whenever they discussed specific pieces. At the end, each one was asked to name their one most meaningful piece in their own oeuvre:

Mackey – Wine Dark Sea

Newman – Symphony: My Hands Are a City

Bryant – Concerto for Wind Ensemble (among others: “One! One!” said Newman as Bryant went on)

Whitacre – a choral miniature, “About a Boy”

They mentioned a lot of others, including:

Mackey – Red Line Tango and Sheltering Sky – (to paraphrase) “a nice, fine little piece that Eric Wilson at Baylor took and made it sound important”

Whitacre – Deep Field and Lux Aurumque – “Lux Aurumque was designed to teach the audience how to breath without realizing that their brains are being hacked.”

Newman – Blow it Up, Start Again (another paraphrase) – “That piece I wrote for orchestra specifically to do the things only an orchestra can do. Then I was asked to transcribe it for band!”

Bryant – Concerto for Alto Saxophone, Concerto for Trombone – “which is supposed to be finished right now. Sorry, Jerry Junkin…”

All of them gave Whitacre credit for getting them into the idea of writing band music. Then an audience member asked to touch Whitacre’s hair. For all of the copious talent, personality, and intellect on the stage, he was clearly the star of the show.

The day ended with two more concerts. First was the North Hardin Wind Symphony, a high school group from Tennessee that had a wonderful dark sound with some noticeable standout players. They played:

Morning, Noon, and Night in ViennaFranz von Suppé, arr. Fillmore (ed. Foster)

Fantasia on Bogoroditse Devo – Frederick Speck

ExtremisRandall Standridge

(Risk) Everything for a Dream – Richard Saucedo

Everything BeautifulSamuel R. Hazo

Echo Chamber – William Pitts and Michael Martin (featuring Martin on trumpet)

Wind Dark Sea: Symphony for Band (movement III) – John Mackey

Rolling Thunder – Henry Fillmore (ed. Foster)

The Suppé is another orchestra work that has become a band classic. That the strings do indeed work better in parts of it was reinforced by the band’s use of a violin soloist (who did not receive credit in their program) for a large portion of the opening. The Speck was uninteresting. The Standridge sounded a lot like his other fast works, including Adrenaline Engines, with its minor key providing some variety. The Saucedo featured a series of beautifully played solos which did little to save the series of predictable clichés that populated this piece. I found that the Hazo grew on me as it unfolded. I was genuinely moved by the end! Echo Chamber featured nice interplay between the band and the soloist, consisting of a sort of arch form with some minimalist elements. I have discussed Wine Dark Sea elsewhere, and Rolling Thunder is a classic closing march.

I went into the Shujitsu Wind Ensemble concert a little tired but ready to be amazed. They did not disappoint, demonstrating from moment one a beautiful, transparent ensemble sound and a flair for very comfortable virtuosic playing. They were also extremely attentive to detail, especially in phrasing, often moving together to emphasize points of stress. Above all, though, this concert just made me plain HAPPY! It went kind of like this (with inner monologue attached):

Danse Diabolique – Joseph Hellmesberger II, arr. Kamei (a great showpiece, showing their virtuosic abilities and giving them an ample range of styles to display)

On the MallEdwin Granko Goldman, arr. Lisk (wow, they can really play. And sing. And WHISTLE. And I somehow feel so…. happy!)

Wayfaring Stranger – Christopher M. Nelson (a nice, dramatic treatment of this melody that is not over the top. These kids have a darker side after all!)

The Ringermaster’s MarchJohn Mackey (kind of circus-Ives, the least Mackey-sounding piece he’s written, and they played it with such great style!)

Mindscape – Chang Su Koh (an extremely dark piece, unlike any other Japanese works of the last several decades, a real standout)

Ye Banks and Braes O’ Bonnie Doon – Percy Grainger (lovely to hear this classic played so well!)

Zirkus Humberto – Solo for Xylophone – Jiri Volf (of course they did it with two soloists, even though if I close my eyes I can only hear one sound. Boy they were good – and then they put BLINDFOLDS on and my jaw dropped and they got a standing ovation and I was just so HAPPY!)

Look Up at the Stars – Taku Izumi (a pop song? They’re singing? I guess this must be some sort of important tradition for them.)

Feste RomaneOttorino Respighi, arr. Kimura (their real showpiece, really demonstrating their technical abilities)

Encore! – Yo Goto (light, fun, truly features every section – and they’re actually MOVING now)

Then three more encores! “Sing, Sing, Sing,” something amazing and technical, and, oddly, “Smoke on the Water,” all of which sounded great and made me smile even harder!

Thus ends a concise (I swear) account of a long day. Tomorrow: a lot of concerts and some science.