This year’s WASBE conference began today in beautiful Utrecht, Netherlands, bringing in wind band lovers from all around the world. By all measures I can see so far, this is a band-loving city, and so a perfect place for WASBE to have its biennial conference. This is the first of the daily digests that I will attempt to do about this conference, as I have for many others. I started, in fact, at WASBE San Jose in 2015! As usual, I will focus on repertoire, as is the mission of this website, and in order to prevent these posts from getting completely out of hand, I will generally stick to writing only one sentence per piece/movement. I have extra reason to stay on mission this year: on Thursday, I will be presenting a talk on the topic! More to come on that later.
I arrived yesterday, and had some time both then and this morning to wander the streets and canals of central Utrecht. It’s a very walkable city, loaded with shops and restaurants that all seem oriented toward the gorgeous canals, which have almost a gravitational attraction that keeps you coming back. I’m excited to be able to explore a little more as the week rolls on.
The conference itself got underway this afternoon at Utrecht’s city hall, complete with a welcome speech by the mayor. Along with the wonderful food and drink spread, a highlight was the performance by local sax phenom Femke IJlstra. She played two wonderful alto saxophone and piano pieces: Paule Maurice’s Tableux de Provence and Darius Milhaud‘s Brasiliera. Her performance set a very high bar for every other performance that will follow this week. She showed complete mastery of her instrument and absolute artistry with every phrase. We will be hearing more about her, I am sure.
After a brief stop to hear the Irish Symphonic Winds on the plaza just outside city hall (nice uniforms, guys!), I headed over to Tivoli Vredenburg, the concert hall that is hosting the main concert series of the conference. This is a very impressive, open space that looks like the very model of a modern (major) concert hall on the inside. The acoustic is indeed fabulous. But, and I must put this out there, for a concert hall in a country with one of the tallest average populations in the world, the seating is surprisingly squeezed front to back. Simply, if you’re as tall as I am (6′ 3″), there is nowhere to put your feet. So, you’ll find me in the front aisle rows, with more legroom, whenever possible. I’ll be the guy taking notes.
The American Chamber Winds, directed by David Waybright, kicked off the concerts this afternoon at 4pm. Their very modern program looked like this:
Le Nozze di Figaro, K. 492 – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (arr. Bernardini)
Octandre – Edgard Varèse
Octuor pour instruments a vent – Igor Stravinsky (also commonly known as his Octet)
Radix Tyrannis – Peter van Zandt Lane, featuring Joseph Alessi on trombone
Overnight Mail – Michael Torke
Circus Polka – Igor Stravinsky
Rolling Thunder – Henry Fillmore
If that list seems long, that’s because it most definitely is. This was easily a 90-minute program! Not every player was in every piece, but the audience was – this was a very long time to sit, and a lot of modern music to digest, especially with no intermission. And this despite some fine playing by these professional calibre musicians, mostly from Florida. The Mozart appears to be a new arrangement of the Figaro material for the same ensemble as his Gran Partita, basset horns and all. In four movements, it highlighted famous scenes from the opera. The Varèse and the Stravinsky, each in three movements, were presented together in alternating movements. This could have been a wonderful, unique presentation, if not for the absolute incontrovertible fact that the second and third movements of Stravinsky run seamlessly together. Interrupting this transition to insert Varèse detracted substantially from the performance. The only saving grace was hearing Stravinsky, with his wit and lightness, come back in for the third movement after Varèse’s noisy doom, although this effect is nearly as well accomplished by going seamlessly from the second to the third movement of Stravinsky anyway. So, while it was an interesting concept, it did justice to neither piece. The program continued with the Lane, featuring the amazing Joe Alessi playing a long series of angular patterns with some occasional lyricism thrown in, backed by a relatively large ensemble. The Torke looked a lot like a jazz big band, but with no drummer, so I expected to hear jazz. I got a little bit of that, especially in the outer movements. The second movement, a gentle pastorale, was the highlight. The program ended with two circus marches, one (Stravinsky) rather meta and the other (Fillmore) exactly the model of a virtuosic performance. These were capped with another circus march for an encore (did I mention the concert was very long?) written by one of the players in the ensemble whose name I did not catch. Overall, this set was a forceful statement of modernity on the fringes of a medieval city.
After a canal-side dinner with some Italian, British, Dutch, and French-Argentinian friends, we all heard the Koninklijke Militaire Kapel Johan Willem Friso (in short: Dutch Royal Military Band) play the following program:
Fête Sicilienne – Pieter Joseph Kessels
Concerto for Trombone – Steven Bryant, featuring Jörgen van Rijen on trombone
Coming to Light – Alexander Comitas
Philadelphia Overture – Dirk Brossé
Bombibone Brassbit – Jan Sandström, again with van Rijen
Serenity – Ola Gjeilo (arr. Wilson)
Latin American Symphonette – Morton Gould (arr. Koekelkoren)
The Kessels was a very traditional concert overture in the vein of Rossini or Suppe, and very entertaining. The Bryant, featuring a stunning performance by van Rijen, used a wide and compelling sound palate in the ensemble that always paired perfectly with the soloist. This along with perfect musical pacing, both by composer and ensemble, made this an extremely successful piece. The Comitas began in atmospheric uncertainty before coalescing into something grotesque, then backing off again, and essentially repeated this process (perhaps one time too many) before a big, grand finish. The Brossé was another true concert overture, although obviously from a later era than the Kessels, going through several moods and tempos. The Sandström started out as a light technical showpiece before taking a surprisingly dark, moody turn that lent it some gravitas. The Gjeilo was a very pretty choral transcription made all the more effective by some truly phenomenal pacing on the part of maestro Tijmen Botma. The Gould, with each of its four movements focused on a different latin rhythm, was a wonderful light ending that displayed his full grasp of both symphonic and popular techniques. It’s a worthy transcription to have available!
With day one in the books, I will now collapse from jet lag. Tomorrow, maybe I’ll make it to an after party. Stay tuned!