April Essential Repertoire: Frank Ticheli’s List

Mike Lawson • ChoralRepertoire • April 7, 2015

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This installment of concert band repertoire reviews features music in a range of difficulty levels by Gustav Holst, Samuel Adler, William Himes, Percy Grainger, Donald Grantham, Warren Benson and Stravinsky. “Frank Ticheli’s List” is a compilation of core repertoire for concert band selected by composer Frank Ticheli of USC. These pieces have been reviewed by Gregory Rudgers, Dr. John A. Darling, and Dr. Alan Lourens.

“Suite No. 1 in EH”

Gustav Holst • Boosey & Hawkes • Grade 4 • Duration: 11:00

One of the keystones of the band repertoire, the Holst “Suite No. 1” is a masterwork of the first order. This work represents one of the earliest of serious works for the modern band by a composer whose place in the canon of composers is legendary. English composer Gustav Holst (1874-1934) is today noted particularly for his suite “The Planets,” featuring the most famous movements “Mars, the Bringer of War,” seen as an allegory for WW1, which was underway during its composition, and “Jupiter,” whose famous hymn-like theme is seen as a kind of alternative British anthem. Holsts works for wind band, his “Suite No. 1 in E Flat” and “Suite No. 2 in F” and his much later “Hammersmith” are all key works in the wind band repertoire. In addition is “Moorside Suite,” written for British-style brass band, is often performed in transcription.

“Suite No. 1” pre-dates “The Planets by around five years, having been written in 1909. In an interesting anomaly, the first known performance of this work was in 1920, some eleven years following its composition. The work falls into three movements.

The “Chaconne” is a broad movement based on a bass line of 16 notes. Academics enjoy debating the form of this movement (which some say is better described as a passacaglia), but the formal construction is unmistakable, with the ostinato appearing either unchanged or inverted throughout the movement. Its conclusion pushes the brass into the upper register, and a slow tempo in this movement can be very taxing for a young band.

The second movement, the “Intermezzo” is, unusually for a middle movementa rather brisk and light enterprise. Holst’s jaunty theme is based (as is the last movement) on fragments of the opening “Chaconne” theme. Holst moves us through some deft metric modulation and weaves in a much more broad flowing second theme before combining them at the close. A masterpiece of composition, this movement really demonstrates Holst’s structural abilities.

The third movement, a very English march, is reminiscent of the sort of marches written by Edward Elgar and heard in graduation ceremonies everywhere. It is a broad march in ABA theme, with the opening theme being bravura in style while the second theme is much more understated (with a somewhat meandering countermelody in the tenor lines). With a deft touch, Holst weaves the theme together in the coda before a brief flourish leads us to an emphatic close.

The Holst Suites for band were written by a well-known composer who saw the potential of the wind band medium. They are key works in our repertoire that should be played, studied, and (most importantly) enjoyed by all who wish to understand our repertoire.

Review by Dr. Alan Lourens

“A Little Night and Day Music”

Samuel Adler • Carl Fischer • Grade 4 • Duration: 7:00

Samuel Adler (b. 1928) is a professor of composition at the Juilliard School, having held similar posts at the University of North Texas and the Eastman School of Music. His output has included large scale works, including five operas and six symphonies, many concerti and choral works. His many works for band, stretching back to 1961, have become well established in the wind repertoire.

“A Little Night and Day Music” (1976) as the title may suggest, is a work in two distinct sections; “A Little Night Music” and “A Little Day Music.” The opening “A Little Night Music” is highly atmospheric, using pyramid techniques to build often dissonant harmonies, often leading to unison or octave statements. This movement is somewhat dodecaphonic, and certainly uses advanced compositional techniques other than melody/accompaniment to move the work forward. It is a fascinating movement for anyone interested in advanced serial techniques.

The second section, “A Little Day Music,” is much brighter and somewhat more bombastic. Again we find the use of pyramids, to create loud dark sections, particularly in the brass. Juxtaposed against this are softer sections of melody, often sweet though occasionally quite moody. This is day music for a full day of action, with strongly dissonant chords, aggressive brass writing an pointillistic percussion set against more flowing woodwind lines.

A Little Night and Day Music is a fascinating piece of music that eschews diatonic harmony. Rather, Adler explores color and often dissonant harmonies in a formal composition by a composer of considerable experience and training. This is not a composition for the faint-hearted. Making it work takes some thought and effort. However as an example of “modern” music of the 20th century, it is an outstanding example, and deserves a wide audience.

Review by Dr. Alan Lourens

“Amazing Grace”

William Himes • Winwood Music • Grade 4 • Duration: 3:30

The hymn “Amazing Grace” is one of the most recognized melodies in the western world. Its powerful message of redemption and hope has been set in every medium from full orchestra, through spirituals to popular music. Chicago-based composer William Himes is director of the Chicago Staff Band of the Salvation Army, in which he holds the post of music director of the central territory of the USA. He has written works for both British-style brass band and concert band. This setting of “Amazing Grace” was first composed for brass band, and later set for winds by the composer.

Himes’ beautiful opening is akin to pressing the sustain pedal on the piano and playing the melody. The notes build a beautiful and haunting harmony, first in consonance and then, as the work progresses, in wonderful dissonances that resolve through attrition. It is a haunting, but simply gorgeous opening.

When the transition enters for the second verse it is a like a flower opening. The second iteration is the most straightforward of the three. Accompanied at first by simple eighth notes, the melody is later joined by a melodic fragment featuring a small “turn” in the tenor voices that will reemerge in verse three as we near the climax. A short transition leads up to verse three.

Again starting in an understated manner, Himes leads to a glorious and broad climax that befits this gorgeous hymn. In the coda, Himes offers an outlining of the melody while giving us chords moving inexorably towards the tonic.

There is no single element in this arrangement that is unique to this work. However, Himes has crafted a setting that can be both melodic, harmonically fascinating, and very gorgeous. From a haunting opening through a glorious climax to a satisfying and introverted close, he takes us on a journey with a familiar friend in an unfamiliar setting. It is masterful in its craft, but also affecting in its elegant simplicity.

Review by Dr. Alan Lourens

“Shepherd’s Hey”

Percy Grainger • Carl Fischer • Grade 4  Duration: approx 2:45

Often performed as the second of a two-movement suite with “Irish Tune from County Derry,” this sprightly dance by Percy Grainger is a delightful, fanciful finale as companion to the stunningly beautiful Irish tune. This is an elaborate work and a highly charged arrangement of a traditional English dancing tune. Grainger discovered this particular Morris Dance in the folk song collection of the musicologist Cecil Sharp who first heard this tune performed by a violinist of the Bidford Morris Dancers in 1906. As was his custom, Grainger set the tune in different versions ranging from solo piano to orchestra and wind orchestra, more commonly known as military or concert band. This edition employs standard concert band instrumentation and percussion appropriate to the dance style. The charming dance is replete with Grainger’s original and masterful scoring as well as dazzling technique and articulation. There are passages of wonderfully delicate staccato, lyrical legato, as well as boisterous and belligerent marcato, all the while maintaining a compelling rhythmic drive. The music changes personality often, lilting along with gentle charm and grace and then suddenly bursting forth with aggression and bravado. Virtually all voices are challenged technically in that precision of articulation and rhythm are essential in maintaining its festive vitality. As Grainger takes us through several statements of each melody we are treated to sparkling colors and wonderfully original voicings. After statements in alternation between various combinations of woodwinds and brasses, the work evolves into a tutti finale that gradually accelerates into a splendid rush of technique and volume for a genuinely thrilling final statement. It is no wonder that this delightful work is often used as an encore; it is engaging and entertaining music, authentic to British tradition, which offers mature ensembles the opportunity to display their virtuosity.

 Review by Gregory B. Rudgers

“Starry Crown”

Donald Grantham • Piquant Press • Grade 5 • Duration: 14:00

Donald Grantham is a much-storied composer who is currently a professor of composition at the University of Texas in Austin. Amongst his awards are Prix Lilli Boulanger and twice winning the ABA/Ostwald competition. His 1998 work for band “Southern Harmony” has become a much performed part of the modern repertory for winds.

Grantham works are rarely without a sense of humor. His music is jazz-influenced, strongly tonal, elegant, and well constructed. “Starry Crown” was written in 2007 to commemorate the retirement of John Whitwell as director of bands at Michigan State University. It is based on three gospel melodies, “Some of These Days,” “Oh Rocks,” “Don’t Fall on Me,” and “When I Went Down to the Valley.

The work will require the ensemble and the director to have a strong knowledge of a variety of styles, including a good understanding of the gospel traditions. The middle of the work includes a kind of “call and response” section that has been likened to the sermons of an old time gospel preacher.

The outer sections exhibit great energy, and the five percussion parts, timpani, and piano/celeste have a great many notes to play. Indeed, the percussion writing (often written for a “trap set”) affect the style of a great deal of the work.

This is a long work by a composer with a startling and well-developed technical proficiency. His language is mature, and ensures that his musical message is a clear one. It demonstrates outstanding understanding of style, and offers the audience an attractive and exciting work by a well-established composer.

Review by Dr. Alan Lourens

“Circus Polka”

Stravinsky (arr. Raksin) • Schott • Grade 5 • Duration: 4:00

Stravinsky’s “Circus Polka” may have as its genesis one of the most unusual pedigrees in the musical world. In 1941, Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus invited the famous choreographer George Balanchine to choreograph a dance for dancers and elephants. Balanchine suggested that Stravinsky write the music, which Stravinsky agreed but only (according to Balanchine) with the words “If they are young elephants, I will do it.” Accordingly, Stravinsky delivered the piano score to the work, entitled “Circus Polka” with the subtitle for a young elephant.

The piano version was arranged for band and organ by David Raksin, an American composer with over 100 film scores to his credit, including some of the most famous films of the ‘40s and ‘50s. He later taught composition at the University of Southern California, and UCLA. It was this version that was premiered in 1942 in a performance involving fifty elephants and fifty ballerinas. It was deemed a success and ran for many performances, and Stravinsky later scored it for orchestra.

The “Circus Polka” is a deeply rhythmical work, although it is also very witty in its use of interjections to create a feeling of a dancer moving in and out of step with the music. In particular the middle of the work features a great many pulse changing interjections that would not be out of place in some of Stravinsky’s earlier works.

Towards the end, Stravinsky quotes Schubert’s “Marche Militaire Francaise” in a tongue-in-cheek nod to the polka that never quite settles into a meter. It is a surprisingly difficult piece to play, but a fine example of a great composer relaxing to enjoy his work. Witty and fun, this rarely performed work deserves a more regular place in our repertoire.

 Review by Dr. Alan Lourens

“The Solitary Dancer”

Warren Benson • Carl Fischer  • Grade 5 • Duration: 6:20

Commissioned in 1966 by the Clarence (New York) Senior High School Band, Norbert J. Buskey, director, “The Solitary Dancer” was at the time a truly one-of-a-kind piece in the history of band repertoire. It remains one of the most performed Benson compositions by bands and wind ensembles. It could be argued that “The Solitary Dancer” was the first piece written in the minimalist style for winds. The work is through-composed with all of the musical elements presented by Benson in the opening fifteen measures. The orchestration will provide some difficulty for less mature school programs. Alto clarinet parts, which at the time were commonly used instruments in band compositions, are essential. Additionally, there are parts for soprano saxophone, piano, two flugelhorns, and six percussionists. Some parts towards the end of the piece require singing. Although common practice now, the use of the human voice as a textural device was a relatively new technique in 1966. This piece is deceptive in its structure and form. To the untrained eye it may appear much easier than it really is. Clean articulations and exceptional breath control will be required from all parts. The players will find they cannot relax during any portion of this piece. Intonation and matching pitch will be a constant requirement as soloists and instrumental combinations pass elements from one section to the next. Rhythmic vitality and precise execution are necessary for a credible performance.

Review by Dr. John A. Darling

Frank Ticheli is a professor of composition at USC Thornton School of Music, and is the recipient of a 2012 Arts and Letters Award from the Academy of Arts and Letters. He is the principal judge of the Frank Ticheli Composition Contest, sponsored by Manhattan Beach Music. His works for concert band are among the most celebrated in the industry.

John Darling is an associate professor of Music at Bismarck State College where he teaches theory and conducts the wind ensemble.

Gregory B. Rudgers of Ithaca College has spent his career studying, conducting, composing, and interpreting wind band literature from beginning bands to college and university levels.

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