The Illinois Wind Symphony, conducted by Robert W. Rumbelow, offered a rare highlight at its concert on April 2 — a world premiere by the distinguished composer Aaron Jay Kernis, who has been awarded two Pulitzer Prizes for his music.
Kernis' composition was titled "A Voice, a Messenger," and the inspiration for the work is the role described in the Bible for the shofar, the ram's horn, as well as other trumpet-like instruments employed in biblical times. This concerto was written for Philip Smith, longtime distinguished first trumpet of the New York Philharmonic. Smith had furnished Kernis with biblical texts describing the effect of the sound of the shofar, and Kernis himself heard the shofar blown at Rosh Hashana (Jewish new year) services.
The opening movement "Morning Prayer" began with peaceful, wistful melodies, with an expressive flutter from trumpeter Smith. The second movement, "Timbrel Psalm," offered dancelike themes, and Smith played fast and jolly passages, with backup from the xylophone. Smith showed his virtuosic powers in a brief cadenza.
Soloist Smith brought three instruments on stage, and in the third movement, "Night Prayer," Smith played on the flugelhorn. The peaceful mood suggested by the title is broken by fast exchanges between Smith's horn and the orchestra's trumpets, with tubas and trombones growling menacingly along the way. There is also in this movement one of the most forceful outbursts by soloist and orchestra up to this point in the piece.
The last, and most energetic movement, is titled "Monument — Tekiah, Teruah," and here soloist Smith played at first on the piccolo trumpet. ("Tekiah" and "Teruah" are Hebrew words to describe the two opposing sounds of the shofar, the hopeful and the anxious.) In this section were fanfares, many percussion effects and interplays between Smith's instrument and the orchestral trumpets.
To imitate the practice in biblical times of having the shofar flanked by two silver trumpets in the Temple in Jerusalem, Kernis has two trumpeters from the orchestra come downstage to play along with Smith. Unfortunately, as the work came to a rousing conclusion, it was difficult to distinguish the individual sounds of the three trumpeters at stage front. But the emotional power of the end of this concerto was unmistakable. This work also gave wide scope to demonstrate Philip Smith's formidable skills on his instrument.
In the hefty applause which greeted this performance, composer Kernis joined soloist Smith with conductor Rumbelow to share in this show of appreciation. The playing of the Wind Symphony was excellent, and Rumbelow led a disciplined and sympathetic performance by the university students.
I talked briefly with composer Kernis afterward, and he expressed relief that this work had been premiered at last. It had been scheduled for premiere by the New York Philharmonic in December 2010, but it was postponed because of heavy snowfall. The concerto had been revised in 2012 for this premiere.
This work was co-commissioned by the New York Philharmonic and the Big Ten Band Directors Association, and one presumes it will be played widely by other symphonic bands in the Big Ten. Aside from offering a trumpet virtuoso an opportunity for display of skills, the work has many attractive aspects, not the least of which is letting orchestral trumpeters "get into the act."
Along with the Kernis piece, the UI Wind Symphony expertly performed Dimitri Shostakovich's loud and happy "Festive Overture" and two works by Morton Gould, the centenary of whose birth is being commemorated this year. Dale Pointon, graduate assistant conductor, led an expressive performance of Gould's melodious "Ballad for Band," and Rumbelow led the symphony in Gould's "Symphony for Band in two movements," sometimes referred to as the "West Point Symphony," because it was written in 1952 for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
The first movement, "Epitaphs," is restrained in mood, but the second movement, "Marches," explodes with a kaleidoscope of marching rhythms, and through it all drifts the ghost of John Philip Sousa, with snatches of "Stars and Stripes Forever" along the way. Hence, it was especially fitting to end the concert with a fast and snappy rendition of Sousa's "University of Illinois March."
John Frayne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.