Wind Power: University of Maryland Wind Orchestra, December 9, 2010

Two tarantellas by John Corigliano opened the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra’s fall-semester-closing concert on Thursday night. The first, from “Gazebo Dances,” evoked summer breezes and outdoor concerts. UMWO director Michael Votta Jr. kept the rhythms light and crisp, the orchestra’s sections merrily traded the melody around, and all was sweetly, solidly pleasant in the Dekelboum Concert Hall at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

That was the last time Thursday night that you could say that: The following tarantella, excerpted from the composer’s first symphony, twisted and deformed the gazebo melody, slowing it down, making it sound ugly, and blasting it with piercing high dissonances, brusque outbursts, and general mayhem suitable to a depiction of a man gradually dying from AIDS-related dementia. Here the playing achieved just as high a standard, but to more arresting ends. It set the tone for the concert.

Titles of classical concerts (like “Wunder/Kinder,” the title of the next night’s UMWO performance, in association with the Terp symphony) always seem glib and reductive to me, similar to using for a production of “Hamlet” the tagline “Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark, and Hamlet’s taking out the trash.” But the title “Wild Rides” fit this concert’s repertoire — four pieces all written within the last hundred years, the oldest (from 1914) a lurid depiction of an orgy, the newest a percussion concerto, whose very genre may intimidate the faint-hearted.

Said percussion concerto was written by Jennifer Higdon, though, one of the few contemporary composers who seem to be able to touch the hearts of orchestral audiences weaned on Beethoven and Brahms. Joining the UMWO for the endeavor was Christopher Rose, a percussionist with “The President’s Own” Marine Band who gave the world premiere of the band version of the concerto. (See page 5 of this PDF for some more Rosiana.) From Rose’s opening rumbles from the bottom of his marimba and the crackling silence that followed, this performance stayed taut and focused, most notably when Rose delivered unbelievably clean and focused sound from a set of wood blocks in a cadenza and the UMWO percussionists almost matched him. The orchestra sometimes sounded a little imprecise in the busier ensemble passages, but the comparison to Rose can’t have helped.

Higdon shines especially bright in the slow sections of her concerti, and this was a doozy: Rose both bowing and using his mallets on the vibraphone, with soft, charged wind chords behind him describing a simple but heart-grabbing melody. It’s probably the time of year more than anything else, but I felt it sounded like what a real Christ-mass should sound like: ruminative, modest, maybe even a little awed. Rose sounded just as intense here as he did in (for example) his later drum-kit solo, which had such an irresistible propulsive force that I found myself bobbing my head way more than I would normally let myself at a classical concert.

The instrumentation of the Higdon and Corigliano was such that the UMWO barely fit on the stage; after intermission, they downsized to a mere incredibly large wind orchestra, with giant masses of winds to play Carlos Surinach’s “Paeans and Dances of Heathen Iberia.” The suite is chock-full of phrases that both stick in your head and sound almost ugly with dissonance and strong off-beats. Surinach then repeats these phrases, without a scrap of additional adornment, until just before I got sick of any of them, then switches to contrasting phrases. The UMWO made some of the earthiest tones I have ever heard a wind orchestra make on purpose, with Votta gesturing so hard for them to dig into the rhythms that he had to shake his hands out in between the six pieces.

And then it was the orgy we were all waiting for! In the form of Florent Schmitt’s “Dionysiaques,” also written for a truly giant group of winds, making equally earthy noises to less terpsichorean ends. Votta’s well-written program notes outlined a vague program for the Schmitt, but given the low fumbling-around chords at the beginning, followed by stabs at coordination with continued awkward interruptions, progressing ultimately to a loud climax almost immediately succeeded by utter collapse, I felt I knew exactly what Schmitt had in mind. The UMWO rendered it with appropriate gusto; given the fearsome complexity of the piece, the ensemble was pretty damn good, and perhaps a little messiness made it more vivid.

Lamentably few people showed up Thursday night — perhaps due to some combo of the cold, the approach of exams, and the recentness of the repertoire. Still, the UMWO played a little in the Smith Center lobby before the concert to serenade early-comers (I got there just as they were dispersing), and they left posterboards in the lobby with photocopies of pages from the scores they would play that evening and reflections from the musicians themselves (taken from the orchestra’s blog). Some wrote in high-flown ways about the artistic merits of the works, some pronounced themselves up for the challenges these works presented, and some just talked about how much fun the concert was going to be. They were all right.


Terpsichorean? And it was at the University of Maryland? M-A-R-Y-L-A-N-D, Maryland will win!!!!!!

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