John Frayne | Anniversaries in the air as Canadian Brass joins UI Wind Symphony

John Frayne | Anniversaries in the air as Canadian Brass joins UI Wind Symphony

There was an air of anniversaries in Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana recently.

On April 10, the University of Illinois Wind Symphony gave a concert that climaxed the 150th anniversary of the inauguration of a band program at the university in 1868-69.

Before the music began, Stephen G. Peterson, the head of the band program at the UI, spoke of the distinguished history of the band over its 150 years of existence.

The highlight of the Wind Symphony concert was the world premiere of Dana Wilson's "Quintessence," which matched the student players of the Wind Symphony with the five players of the Canadian Brass Quintet, which had given a concert on April 7.

The April 10 concert started off with a work by Percy Grainger (1882-1961) called "Hill-Song No. 1" in a new wind band transcription by Joe Clark, who is a graduate teaching assistant with UI bands. Clark also conducted his arrangement. This work was seldom performed because of Grainger's request for unusual clusters of instruments, such as six oboes and six bassoons.

The program notes listed a number of features that Grainger wanted to achieve in this early composition. One of them is that themes were not to be repeated, since, in Grainger's opinion, such favoring of certain themes was undemocratic.

The resulting work, on first listening, seemed to be a free-roving fantasia, much in the style of Frederick Delius, one of my favorite composers. Clark's transcription seemed quite idiomatic to my ears, and his conducting of the work was clear and forceful.

The middle work on the program was by Bob Margolis (born 1949), called "Terpsichore, the name of the Greek muse of the dance," and it was a modern homage to the dances from the French Court of Henry IV of France, published in 1612 by Michael Praetorious.

Margolis' work dates from 1981, a time when the Praetorius collection was not as well-known as now. But that said, Margolis' work has many delightful stretches and offered frequent opportunities for the Wind Symphony players to shine, as in the second movement, which featured a lovely harp solo by Dai-An Liu.

A world premiere, written especially for the Canadian Brass and the Wind Symphony, took up the rest of the program. The name of this work was "Quintessence," and its composer, Wilson (born 1948), defined the word of the title as "the most perfect embodiment of something, the exemplar, the epitome, the pure and concentrated essence of a substance."

Although not a concerto in the conventional sense, the role of the Canadian Brass was that of counterbalance to the wind band ensemble.

The work began with members of the Canadian Brass positioned all around Foellinger, and after they had played their entry music, they came on stage to position themselves in front of the Wind Symphony.

This work gave ample opportunity for the Canadian Brass players to display their virtuosity, as soloists and as playing with members of the orchestra.

During this sometimes complex work, conductor Peterson carefully kept the various strands of its tonal web in clear balance. For most of its length, this work did not show to me its relevance to the concept of quintessence, although the verbal root stem (quint = 5) was clearly a compliment to the Canadian quintet.

But in the last measures of the work, the complex mix of quintet and orchestra thinned out to a final quiet restatement of an important theme, and it sounded as if the music had indeed purified itself down to its "fifth essence."

At the end of "Quintessence," during the strong applause, composer Wilson took a bow, and the Canadian Brass players, Chuck Daellenbach (tuba), Caleb Hudson and Christopher Coletti (trumpets), Achilles Liarmakopoulos (trombone) and Jeff Nelson (horn) called to the stage two former members of the quintet, who are currently on the UI School of Music faculty, Professsors Ronald Romm and Bernhard Scully.

They all joined in a wild and raucous performance of "Beale Street Blues," with especially brilliant flutterings from trombonist Liarmakopoulos. This encore evoked shouts and cheers befitting an anniversary celebration.

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at frayne@illinois.edu.

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