Friday, January 21, 2011

Tonight's Region Concert Was Lights-Out Good

Every year, I happily spend a Friday night listening to my students and other outstanding young musicians perform at the All-Region Bands concert; this year's edition took place tonight. As I say every year, this post is not by any means an attempt to liveblog the concert or even do a traditional review of same; rather, it's just the things that popped into my head while I was listening:
  • As always, the concert runs like clockwork; each band is given 45-minute slots to play 30 minutes of music or less, so ample time is allowed for seating changes between bands, and the families and friends of the performers always know an exact time to arrive for a particular band's portion of the concert. In less than four hours, four high school bands and one ninth-grade band are heard, and the night goes more quickly than one might think. And while the fixed schedule does provide for some long lulls if a band runs less than half an hour, it also gives me the opportunity to schmooze with parents and directors. (And this year, if none of them were around, I had Facebook on my phone as well. Yes, I was that guy...but only during the breaks.)

  • This year, I had seven people from my studio make the bands, which is one shy of last year. (Although it must be said that a pretty decent saxophone section could be made out of people from my studio alone who didn't make the band.) The distribution was two seniors, two juniors, a sophomore and two freshmen, so things look good for the future.

  • The concert started in a rather unique manner: As the freshman band started its first number, someone in the light booth made an attempt to dim the house lights...and managed to douse nearly every light in the place, including those onstage. The band continued on valiantly from memory for a few bars, but they eventually stopped and waited for the lights to come on again; it would take a few more bands before the proper balance was achieved. Nothing like a good tech-crew FAIL to get things started.

  • Musically, there wasn't a "dud" piece programmed all evening, which was a pleasant contrast from last year. While most of the music was of the newer "wind ensemble" variety (more on that shortly), even the older pieces were played well and with lots of enthusiasm; it was easy to forget that 1) everyone on stage is in high school, and 2) they had about nine hours of rehearsal over the past 24 hours to put everything together. My proverbial hat is off to all the performers and clinicians.

  • Speaking of the clinicians, each one of them talked to the audience at least once this year, which hasn't always happened. Sure, in my perfect world, the programs would either list the pieces in their concert order (rather than saying "program to be selected from..." as they do now) or each clinician would back-announce anything that deviated from what was printed. (And the programs would also go into a bit more detail: First name of composer, if the piece is divided into movements, etc. But I'm probably being picky here..).

  • One less-than-pleasant surprise was the large showing exhibited by the Dorky Parents' Brigade this year. It's one thing to clap for your kids, but there were way too many people making spectacles of themselves by either shouting, "[insert kid's name here], we love you!" or standing up and waving incessantly at the stage (one guy was so bad that a few kids--whom I assume didn't even know him--stood up and waved back just to mess with him). These are the same people who ruin graduations for everyone else, and I've never seen quite so many of them at this concert before tonight.

  • But those folks aside, we had more proof tonight that audiences can in fact be trained: If the conductor left one hand up between movements of a piece, the audience would get the signal and refrain from clapping; if he didn't, inappropriate clappage would occur.

  • One thing that's never happened before, at least in my memory: The auditorium really brought out the sound of the saxophone section. (I wonder if the fact that I was seated dead-center instead of off to one side made a difference.) Sure, the bands are big--the Concert Band had six altos, three tenors and two baris, and the sections got smaller as the bands did as well--but I've never heard saxes quite so "high in the mix" as I did tonight. (I always wondered what it would have been like if balance between the saxophone sound and the clarinet sound were reversed in the band, and I got a small picture of that tonight. Need I say that I liked it?)

  • I always use this occasion to restate my belief that the newer "wind ensemble music" (with its film-score influences, reliance on interesting tonal colors and expanded percussion sections) is far superior to the older "band music" (which was written in a more tonally homogeneous fashion). And while I do prefer the newer stuff (represented tonight by the likes of Brian Balmages, Samuel Hazo and birthday boy Frank Ticheli), an old chestnut like Gustav Holst's Second Suite in F is always welcome when played well, and a Sousa march is still two or three minutes of perfection.

  • After the above discussion, this is where I state that I really need to write my blog post on "how film scoring saved classical music." Someone please hold me to it this year.

  • Every band played extremely well tonight--in no way, for example, did the Concert Band sound like a "fourth" band (and I'd say that even if several of my guys weren't in there)--but the top two bands, the Wind Ensemble and the Wind Symphony, were at another level altogether. These two bands are traditionally conducted by college directors (and lately, that's meant two from the same school; tonight's came from UTEP), and no matter what they play, the music crackles with new energy from the get-go. The Wind Symphony had a cool bit of programming by pairing Sousa's The Fairest of the Fair with a newer fantasy written on the theme of that march, and the Wind Ensemble had me from the first measure with their opener, Clifton Williams' The Sinfonians (featuring a couple of my fraternity's beloved songs), followed by one of my favorite pieces from my own Region days, Howard Hanson's Laude (which, after listening to it with new ears, may have been the first film-score band piece).

  • And finally, the obligatory "it's nice to be recognized" part: It's always cool when they recognize the teachers before every band (by having all the directors and private teachers of the students currently on stage stand up for a moment). Most of the work that my colleagues and I do is behind the scenes, and that's OK; the real reward is watching them progress over the years and develop a love for music that will hopefully last far beyond their public schooling, no matter what their major will be in college. But I'd be a liar if I said it wasn't nice to be among those standing up every year. (Wow--looking back, this post is almost as long as the concert itself!)
As I've said before, I try to make this a must-see on my calendar; I may not get to attend too many individual schools' concerts, but I like to be at this one to support the students who have put in the extra work to earn the chance to play on this night. (And it's crazy to think that I began the tradition of blogging this concert in 2006, when tonight's seniors were in seventh grade.)

Previous Region Band concert posts: 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006.

Quoteworthy: The Wind Ensemble conductor, Dr. Lowell Graham, used to direct the top Air Force band. In an age when educational budgets are being slashed, leading some to call for reductions in arts education, Graham left us with five great qualities found in...fighter pilots:
  • Personal responsibility

  • Teamwork

  • Multitasking

  • Looking ahead over the horizon

  • Real-time problem solving
Guess what--all those qualities were exhibited by the musicians onstage tonight as well! And all the aesthetic pleasures of music are just the frosting...

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