Composer & Conductor Discuss Resurgence of Wind Ensembles

Jeff W. Ball

Brooklyn Wind Symphony Artistic Director Jeff W. Ball interviews Dr. David Maslanka on the music of the late composer John Barnes Chance, “channeling” the composer, and the growing prevalence of commissioning consortiums among wind ensembles.

JWB:  When did you first hear a composition by John Barnes Chance?

David Maslanka

DM: My first contact was “Incantation and Dance.”  It was around 1965.  I was a first-year grad student at Michigan State and the band there was playing the piece.  I wasn’t in the band, but heard rehearsals and performance. The piece was “hot” that year – everybody was playing it.

JWB: Has your impression of this piece changed over time?

DM: It was, and remains, an attractive piece. I liked its fresh percussive rhythmic nature, and clear instrumental colors. Working with it many years later for the Illinois State University recording was still a positive experience.

JWB: How did that project come about?  What was your role?

DM: Dr. Stephen Steele, conductor of the Illinois State University Wind Symphony, was asked by Susan Bush of Albany Records if he would be interested in making a CD of select Chance works. Susan thought this would be a timely CD, one that many people would find interesting. This is a nice recognition of the enduring quality of some of Chance’s music. Steve’s first step was to send me all the scores he had collected of Chance’s wind music – about a dozen. I reviewed them all, and came up with what I termed an “A” list. My recommendations included Incantation and Dance, Variations on a Korean Folk Song, Symphony No.2, and the piano concerto piece. In rehearsals and the recording session I acted as the “presence of the composer.” It was my job to read the score and be the reminder for basic stuff like tempos, dynamics, and qualities of articulation – to insist on these, and to offer thoughts on qualities of style. There is what is printed in scores, and then there is what has accumulated as performance practice over the years. My job was to bring things back to the score. The most interesting piece for me was Symphony No.2, a piece that Chance never heard in his lifetime. I felt like I was “channeling” Chance, allowing him to be present, both to hear his music for the first time, and to offer the suggestions he would have made for performance. This assertion certainly cannot be proven, but it was a very curious experience for me.

JWB: Why do you think that Albany Records recording has been so successful?

DM: Chance’s music is still fresh and likeable, and a large number of people remember it fondly from their younger band days. It has also not left the repertoire. Steele’s recording of this music is simply very good. It is exactingly performed and well recorded.

JWB:   Has the music of Chance (and his contemporaries) influenced your growth as a composer?

DM: I would certainly say that Chance’s music, and that of people like Clifton Williams and Vaclav Nelhybel, and my teacher, H. Owen Reed, influenced my early growth as a composer. This was different music than the so-called mainstream of the time, which was serialism and significant branching off with people like Penderecki and Berio.  Chance and other band composers were more “down home” outgrowths of school music. It has taken all the years since Chance for wind band music to attain something of mainstream status. The influences on current wind band music are as varied as world music itself, but I would say that the music of the “early modern” wind band composers pointed in a fresh direction that many of us found attractive.

JWB:   Chance was a percussionist and this heavily influenced his writing style. What was your primary instrument growing up?

DM: I was a clarinetist, and had both band and orchestra experience as a high school and college student. I had more band than orchestra, and I guess that the band sound was in my ear when I thought about writing for larger ensembles. Playing clarinet has certainly been central to my writing for winds. Being in the center of an ensemble as a performer is a major factor for any composer writing ensemble music. The influence of clarinet on my writing style is certainly there, but the factors influencing writing style are many and varied. Many people are convinced that I am a percussionist, which I am not in the least. Composers have to learn the languages of all the instruments, and then absorb and transform in themselves all the music they come in contact with.

JWB:   What do you think Chance’s music would sound like today if he hadn’t tragically passed away at the age of 39?

DM: There is no knowing how Chance would have evolved!

JWB:  Chance’s Second Symphony serves as the centerpiece for the Brooklyn Wind Symphony’s annual Modern Wind Symphony Concert. Do you believe it is important to continue writing symphonies for wind bands?

DM:   I don’t necessarily think that it is important for composers to continue to write symphonies for wind band.  Composers need to write whatever they need to write.  I happen to write symphonies (now seven of them for wind band) but that is something I have felt the urge to do since Symphony No.2 in 1985. Wind bands do not need symphonies in order to be “important”, to try to lift themselves to “orchestral” status.  They need powerful music, well-crafted for the medium, music which inspires the players and their audiences. This has been happening for quite some time now, and the grass roots wind band movement has become a world phenomenon. Wind bands need to program significant works, regardless of length or form, because players and audiences are intensely hungry for deeply nourishing and affecting musical experience.

JWB: Most wind band commissions occur at the collegiate level. Do you think it is important for community based wind bands and secondary schools to commission new music?

DM:  Most wind band commissions occur at the college level because they have figured out how to do consortiums. This is a relatively recent phenomenon. One person takes the lead and enlists a number of other conductors to share the burden of cost. This has resulted in a huge number of new pieces that immediately have more than a single use.  Not all of the music is good, but the simple fact is the more pieces that are written the high likelihood that a percentage will be outstanding. Regarding consortiums, there is no difference between a college band and a community band, except possibly the sense of being connected with other bands. The College Band Directors National Association offers college directors immediate connection to hundreds of other conductors. The CBDNA national and regional conferences, and other events like the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic, allow for very intense networking among conductors. Community bands can simply join in if they wish.  Anyone can join CBDNA. Commissions are now starting from high schools as well. There is the realization that the band world is all one big family, and colleges, community bands, and high schools are willing to help each other out.

JWB: The Brooklyn Wind Symphony is happy to be leading a consortium to commission a new work from you. What do you look for and take into account when requested to write a piece for a specific ensemble?

DM:   The energy and seriousness of the conductor involved is a high consideration. I deeply respect people who are trying hard to build or do something, and I am interested to work with them. For me this has included ensembles all the way from small school groups to major recognized names.

Brooklyn Wind Symphony presents an 80th birthday concert in honor of John Barnes Chance on Saturday, March 24, 2:00 PM. Grand Street High School, 850 Grand Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. $10 suggested donation.

Guest post: Andy Lee on Ann Southam’s Valedictory CD

Please welcome a new contributor to Sequenza 21: Andy Lee: pianist, academic, and writer.

Returnings

Eve Egoyan, Piano

Works by Ann Southam

Centrediscs CMCCD 17211

As musicians we are trained to listen with a critical ear, to automatically dissect, analyze, and evaluate each musical performance we encounter. Knowing that one will have to write about a musical experience brings all this training to the forefront, or at least it should. That didn’t happen for me—at least not initially.

My problem, if you can call it that, was that Ann Southam’s piano music was so beautiful and Eve Egoyan’s interpretation so exquisite, that I didn’t want to listen critically; I wanted to lose myself, disengage my analytical mind, and simply enjoy. In time I was able to cobble together notes for this review, but even after several hearings I must say that this desire to become lost in the music remains ever-present. What follows is my evaluation, such as it is, but if I haven’t yet convinced you to purchase this recording, I’m not sure that anything else I could write will.

Returnings represents perhaps the last musical statement of the phenomenal Canadian composer Ann Southam (1937-2010). She chose the pieces and their ordering for this CD in the last year of her life, and the album also includes the last two pieces she wrote, Returnings I and Returnings II: A Meditation. These pieces, along with Qualities of Consonance (1998) and In Retrospect (2004), were all written for the Eve Egoyan. (I might also add that the image on the cover is original artwork by Southam.)

The CD works marvelously as a whole, to the extent that you might find yourself hard-pressed not to consider this one single composition. Each of these four pieces seems to grapple with its own internal conflict: consonance and dissonance, minimalism and dodecaphony, or restraint and restlessness. What makes this conflict work, and what draws the listener, is that these conflicts never resolve. Southam merely presents these seemingly disparate ideas one against another and lets them be, never allowing one to dominate, and to great effect.

The second piece on the album, In Retrospect, is very reminiscent of a later work (also recorded by Egoyan), Simple Lines of Enquiry (2007). A single twelve-tone row is presented across the keyboard in small sections, and with generous use of the damper pedal, these tones are allowed to interact with one another and slowly build into chords. The pacing and balance of tone that Egoyan provides is spot on. The delicacy of her interpretation tells you that this is a pianist listening intently to every single sound she creates, and that each note is placed in a precise moment in time.

The third track is Qualities of Consonance, by far the most overtly virtuosic work on the CD. It is grounded in serene chords and ostinati, but is frequently interrupted by rapid passagework. Here, the conflict is seems to be presented by two separate pianists, as Egoyan contrasts these two elements extremely well. While her sensitive touch has been well noted in other recordings, here we are given a taste of her technical prowess and adept articulation. Yet this is never virtuosity for its own sake, as each gesture is executed with a clear sense of line.

That said, if there is any weakness on this CD, it is this piece. Despite the Egoyan’s exuberance of the difficult passages, I felt like there was more room for rubato and dynamic contrast in some of the lines of the more serene sections. Likewise, from a compositional standpoint Qualities of Consonance lacks the cohesion of so much of Southam’s other music, making it feel disjointed at times. That said, this remains a remarkable CD, and looking for weaknesses is a bit like deciding which is your least favorite 20-year-old scotch.

The first and last pieces on the album, Returnings I and II, are quite similar to one another. Here, the conflict is between a gentle rolling bass ostinato supporting consonant chords and another twelve-tone row. The row is presented at the outset of both pieces before the ostinato enters, at which point the notes of the row are presented between chords of the right hand. The effect is marvelous, as at times the row adds depth to the harmony and at other times clashes against it. Again, this conflict is never resolved, but allowed to play itself out, and the overall effect becomes one of great calm despite the dissonances that arise.

This sense of calm pervades all four pieces, and I cannot but help think of Southam’s passing when I listen to this CD. Her ability to find beauty in the unresolved dissonance and to allow things to be as they are seems like a beautiful metaphor for life. La vita è bella, and without caveat. It saddens me to think that this will be the last collaboration between two such talented artists, but as Egoyan writes, “each time I perform her music, Ann returns as a radiant resonance, with us, forever.”

I’ve no doubt that many more Southam recordings will be produced in the coming years, but as this contains her last compositions, performed by the pianist for whom they were written, I cannot help but feel a sense of finality when the album ends. I will listen often to this truly beautiful CD, and each time raise my glass to Ann. May she rest in peace.

-Andy Lee