Review: Grantham’s works in spotlight; ensemble lives up to its name

Grantham’s works in spotlight; ensemble lives up to its name

By Peter Jacobi H-T Reviewer |
April 22, 2012

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Reflections on two evenings spent listening to music mostly new to this writer:

Band festival

The annual “Spring Festival of Winds, Brass and Percussion” in Indiana University’s Musical Arts Center on Wednesday focused heavily on works by Donald Grantham, an award-winning composer who was present to hear his works performed.

The festival concert makes room for all three of the Jacobs School’s concert band ensembles. Each included a work of Grantham’s as part of its evening fare. In total, the chosen compositions proved Grantham to be not only a skilled craftsman but a creative artist with something to say.

Led by Eric Smedley, the Concert Band, which took the stage first, performed “Kentucky Harmony,” built from pieces found in an early 19th century collection of shape-note hymn tunes set in four parts. What was once vocal, Grantham had recast in 2000 for band. The results were harmonically bracing and illuminating, casting an aural light on historically important music that once had roused the faithful. Smedley and his players caught the fervor and provided the technical precision to make the old harmonies stir listeners once again.

Conductor Jeffrey Gershman selected Grantham’s “Baron Cimetiere’s Mambo” for his Symphonic Band. Here was a Haitian-inspired adventure in wild rhythms and chilling atmosphere, some of that suggesting the influence of voodoo. The composition’s title refers to the guardian of cemeteries in island lore. The performance hinted at the sinister but also turned appropriately flamboyant, almost flaming in intensity.

Grantham’s 1999 “J’ai ete au bal” had Stephen Pratt and the Wind Ensemble as its champions. A celebration of Cajun and New Orleans brass music, its flavors, as realized by the musicians, were infectious and intoxicating.

The non-Grantham repertoire included (for the Concert Band) John Barnes Chance’s keep-the-musicians-busy “Blue Lake Overture,” effectively conducted by David Woodley; (for the Symphonic Band) Percy Grainger’s effervescent “Molly on the Shore” and the galloping “Dance of the Jesters” by Tchaikovsky; (for the Wind Ensemble) Borodin’s mood-soaked “Polovtsian Dances,” written for the opera “Prince Igor,” and a playfully orchestrated and inventive “Symphonic Synthesis” by Bloomington’s David DeBoor Canfield.

A night later

On Friday in Auer Hall, the New Music Ensemble introduced three absolutely new works, adding another of 2011 origin and a vintage 1971 composition.

One of the “absolutely new” was Paul Moravec’s “Parnas Duo” which, in fact, received a “preview performance,” a pre-premiere reading by the sisters Parnas, violinist Madalyn and cellist Cicely, Jacobs students for whom the piece was written and who will officially premiere it in New York later this week. Moravec supplied the sisters with listenable material that shows off their considerable talents for purity of tone, for stretching the technical capacities of their instruments, and for intuitively capturing the essences of contemporary music.

A 16-person New Music Ensemble, authoritatively led by David Dzubay, tackled Francisco Cortez Alvarez’ “No llores,” winner of the Dean’s Prize Commission.

IU doctoral candidate Alvarez both honors the traditions of his homeland Mexico and bemoans its current chaotic state with an impressive tone poem that extols, accosts, accuses, mourns and ultimately expresses hope.

Tonia Ko’s “Many Splendid Forgettings” gained a premiere performance as winner of the Georgina Joshi Composition Commission Award. Astutely scored for tenor and nine instrumentalists, the work sets to music elegiacally a Paul Gaugin letter about memory, in drunkenly fractured method a Li T’ai Po poem called “A Statement of Resolutions after Being Drunk on a Spring Day,” and with melodic simplicity three haiku by Basho Matsuo about nature prompting memories. David Margulis excelled as vocalist. Dzubay kept him and the ensemble balanced dynamically.

Visiting guest composer Dorothy Chang, possessor of an IU doctorate and teacher at the University of British Columbia, was represented by “Three Windows,” an absorbing three-movement flowering of 21st century Impressionism. One could picture “Streams and Strata,” then an eagle “soft and silent, encircling high,” and, finally, urban encroachment on the beauties of nature in the concluding “Metal on Wood.” With sensitivity, Dzubay guided 16 players through an environment obviously loved by Chang, the shaper of its contours.

Friday’s program opened with the late Stefan Wolpe’s Piece for Trumpet and Seven Instruments. The composer could not have asked for better blasts, bleats and blares than soloist Eddie Ludema lavishly showered on his obstreperous handiwork.

See another Jacobi review, page B8.


Copyright: 2012

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