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An American Breeze

Last Thursday's concert by the Duke Wind Symphony saluted American composers


Naming an ensemble "wind symphony" sometimes seems like an oxymoron. On the one hand, it's a band that doesn't play typical band music (marches, show medleys); on the other hand, it doesn't play typical orchestral-style music, either. Such groups try to slither around the problem by calling themselves hybrid names like "concert bands," "wind orchestras" and "symphonic winds." This odd circumstance was made apparent in last Thursday evening's concert by the Duke Wind Symphony under its conductor, Kraig Alan Williams, and guest conductor, Scott Stewart of Emory University. In an evening devoted to American works, honoring particularly Aaron Copland, the ensemble played a selection of transcriptions and a few works composed originally for winds.

There are few large works for wind ensembles, and the result is a preponderance of transcriptions. Wind transcriptions are pretty tricky to pull off; one often misses the sensuality of the strings to offset and balance the blowing. Nevertheless, some transcriptions work amazingly well. Charles Ives's Variations on "America" is a case in point. This wacky work, originally composed by the 17-year-old Ives for organ, allows the organist to go haywire with the stops. It was transcribed by William Schuman for symphony orchestra and subsequently by William Rhoads for wind band, and the transition to winds worked naturally and beautifully. Solos and section solos to highlight the variations were well within the spirit of the original.

Mark Spede's transcriptions of two of Copland's songs, "Nature, the gentlest mother" from Eight Poems by Emily Dickinson and "Zion's Walls" from the second set of Old American Songs, worked less well. The performance by Susan Dunn was finely and intelligently sung, but these two works pointed out yet another problem with band concerts: the tendency to play only parts of works. It would have been nice to hear a complete set. Williams, however, is to be commended for avoiding snippets as much as possible.

The program opened with Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man, one of those war horses that never fails to show up as classical music radio filler but sounds infinitely more effective and fresh when heard live. Williams got the best performance of the evening out of the brass and percussion.

The Duke Wind Symphony also played two compositions based on the work of another quirky American composer, William Billings (1746-1800). Billings, described by a contemporary as a "singular man, of moderate size, short of one leg, with one eye, without an address, and with an uncommon negligence of person," turned out by the carload his own, often odd harmonizations of Christian hymns. William Schuman took these hymns and worked them into discrete compositions of his own (not exactly arrangements) for band, using much of Billings' original harmonies for When Jesus Wept and Chester Overture.

With regard to quality of performance, first of all, we must put in a disclaimer regarding student players. These folks are not pros, and some shaky entrances and wobbly pitches are to be expected, especially when you have six flutes trying to play in unison. With the exception of the Fanfare, the ensemble sounded timid and lacking in energy. One suspects that, inheriting marching band players, Williams had to keep after them continually in rehearsal, warning them to keep it down, that they were not marching at a game. The result was--believe it or not--too soft, tentative playing, especially by the woodwinds.

The Billings/Schuman compositions are not easy to play, and the band handled them with a feeling of uncertainty. They were more secure in Donald Grantham's Southern Harmony, the three-movement suite reflecting harmonies and rhythms of the American South.

All in all, this was a good concert that provided an opportunity to hear seldom-heard works. In the future, we hope they'll program more compositions originally written for winds--and feature more works in their entirety. EndBlock

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