October 11, 2011

Running Amok With Kraft, Orff

Print More

Cornell’s Wind Symphony and Wind Ensemble (CU Winds) performed in Bailey Hall on Friday, September 30. From the beginning, a concertgoer knows that this is a different experience than most concerts. CU Winds has abandoned paper program notes for overhead notes that inform the audience as the music progresses. Director Cynthia Johnston Turner says, “We write these elaborate program notes, give them to our audience and then turn out the lights … kind of ridiculous!”

The first half of the concert began with the Wind Symphony, the larger ensemble, performing the popular band composer John Barnes Chance’s Variations on a Korean Folk Song. Chance utilizes the Korean folk song “Arrirang” as the theme for a set of variations. The piece begins with the initial presentation of the folk song. The first variation, “Vivace,” transforms the theme into a flurry of excitement. The percussion playing the woodblocks in unison with the melody adds an extra “ping” to the winds’ rapid notes. I loved how the overhead program notes guided me through each variation and the Wind Symphony played passionately and intensely.

A highlight of the Wind Symphony was Clifton Williams’ Symphonic Dance No. 3, Fiesta. Opening with a fanfare perfectly executed by the brass, this dance depicts a Mexican celebration, including street bands and bullfights, in the city of San Antonio. The opening fanfare transforms into a Latin groove with different instruments passing the melody off to each other. The trumpets perform wonderfully throughout the whole piece and the Wind Symphony effectively evokes the sounds of a bullfight. I was impressed with the Wind Symphony’s overall intonation and joy.

The Wind Symphony concluded a great first half with Jules Strens’ “Danse Funambulesque.” “Danse Funambulesque” features pensive and lyrical flute, oboe and clarinet solos. The beautifully performed solos are constantly interrupted by more energetic moments. Eventually, the energetic statements dominate the piece with the wind instruments playing a flurry of notes.  The vivacious and surprising ending leaves the listener wanting more.

After a brief intermission, the Wind Ensemble took the stage performing the big piece of the night: William Kraft’s Concerto No. 1 for Timpani and Symphonic Wind Ensemble. One of the most famous composers alive, Kraft was the composer-in-residence of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and also performed as the principal timpanist for eighteen years in the LA Philharmonic. Over fifty orchestras have performed his timpani concerto, and the CU Winds commissioned this version for wind ensemble. Kraft was present for the concert, as well as in residence at Cornell for the week.  The Wind Ensemble skillfully performed this challenging and exciting piece, likely abetted by their working with Kraft for a few rehearsals.

This concerto raises the question: can the timpanist be a soloist? When performed by the Wind Ensemble and Cornell’s own extraordinary Director of Percussion, Tim Feeney, the answer is clearly yes.  Tim Feeney performed the challenging timpani part effortlessly. As a founding member of the world famous percussion ensemble So Percussion, Feeney is an active performer and we were fortunate to have him perform for us. I was fascinated that instead of the more traditional mallets timpanists use, Kraft’s timpani concerto features unusual effects, such as Feeney playing with his hands while wearing gloves made of different materials including leather and felt, or playing with the drum muted to create unusual timbres.

Feeney said about the concerto, “This is the second time I have played the concerto — the first was with piano, for my junior recital at the Cleveland Institute of Music in 1997.  I thought I’d never see it again — it’s funny how things come back to you at unexpected times! It was a great honor working with Mr. Kraft, who is important to us as one of our greatest percussionists as well as composers.” The Wind Ensemble beautifully performed the haunting second movement opening with a hushed but intense sound.  Although the timpanist was in the front, I wish I could have seen the other percussionists, who were in their traditional position in the back.  I wish I could have seen how they performed some very eerie effects, including multiple percussionists simultaneously playing a vibraphone with cello or bass bows.

During the third movement, the timpani soloist and the other percussionists are instructed to “run amok.” When Kraft first sat in on a rehearsal with the Wind Ensemble, he said it was “the most amok-y” he’s ever heard. Kraft’s timpani concerto pushes the boundaries of what a timpani can perform, transforming the timpani into a solo instrument.

The Wind Ensemble concluded the concert with a Carmina Burana suite, clearly an audience favorite. Originally written by the composer Carl Orff for orchestra and choir, this version of Carmina Burana was arranged for wind ensemble. At first, I was skeptical whether the Wind Ensemble could successfully perform such an iconic piece so differently from its original version, especially with no chorus. I was happily proven wrong. From the first song, “Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi,” the Wind Ensemble’s passionate playing captivates the listeners. The wind instruments practically sound like singers as well, and the Wind Ensemble did a great job. My favorite movement was the sixth movement, “Amor volat unique” (“Love Flies Everywhere”), which beautifully features the flutes.

Over eighty Cornell students with diverse majors participate in both the Wind Symphony and Wind Ensemble.  A major aspect of both ensembles is community service.  Each year, the Wind Ensemble performs at Commencement, PhD and Convocation ceremonies, even performing at President Skorton’s inauguration. In addition, CU Winds support rural schools in Costa Rica, traveling there, leading master classes and donating hundreds of instruments. The talented Cynthia Johnston Turner, Director of Wind Ensembles, led the Wind Symphony and Wind Ensemble. Turner is an active conductor of new music, commissioning numerous works for wind band and frequently performing the works of Cornell DMA candidates in composition. She also has guest conducted the Provincial Honour Bands of Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario, the Ithaca College Wind Ensemble, the Eastman Wind Ensemble, the Latin American Honor Band, the Montclair State Wind Ensemble and the Paris Lodron Ensemble in Salzburg. Cynthia was the guest conductor and artist-in-residence for the Canadian National Wind Ensemble in May 2011.

The Wind Symphony and Ensemble’s next concert is on Sunday, November 13 at 3 p.m. in Bailey Hall.  The concert features a performance of First Symphony for Band by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom, who will also be present for the concert.

Original Author: Liza Sobel