Trends and Changes in Today’s Wind Orchestra Scene

Mike Lawson • October 2022Trends • October 13, 2022

SBO: This is the final installment of four articles by leading composers for wind bands. The acclaimed composer and conductor Johan de Meij has compiled this fascinating article involving his colleagues (Bert Appermont, Steven Bryant, Eugene Corporon, Oscar Navarro, Andy Pease, Alex Shapiro, Frank Ticheli, and OliverWaespi) from around the world to mention works from the last two decades they consider noteworthy and groundbreaking. Here is a list of works – in no order, and again far from complete – that were mentioned more than once:

And the Mountains Rising Nowhere – Joseph Schwantner (1977)

Glorioso – Yasuhide Ito (1990)

Symphony No. 4 – David Maslanka (1993)

Equus – Eric Whitacre (2000)

Music of the Spheres – Philip Sparke (2004) 

Circus Maximus – John Corigliano (2004)

Extreme Makeover – Johan de Meij (2005)

Marco Polo – Luis Serrano Alarcon (2006)

Ecstatic Waters – Steven Bryant (2008)

From Ancient Times – Jan van der Roost (2010)

Spiriti – Thomas Doss (2012)

The Frozen Cathedral – John Mackey (2013)

Symphony No. 3 ’The Apocalyptic’ – Thomas Trachsel (2013)

Masks and Machines – Paul Dooley (2014)

Symphony No. 2 ‘Voices’ – James Stephenson (2016)

I would like to conclude this series with some personal observations, and trends and approaches in some of my more recent works. First, I think the level of playing has increased dramatically over the last decades. Works that were considered unplayable not long ago – especially in the brass band repertoire – are now played by bands in lower divisions. The number of players has increased as well; bands with over a hundred players are no exception anymore.

The writing and the repertoire for wind orchestra have changed dramatically over the last 25 years. While there were very few works longer than 30 minutes in the 1980’s, we now have hundreds of serious, substantial works including symphonies, solo concertos, oratorios, operas, and musicals. The instrumentation has been augmented on all different levels; the use of percussion has grown tremendously. The use of harp and piano, which were hardly seen in the 1980s, is now mainstream. Writing for alto and bass flute, and scoring for four trombones versus the traditional three, has become quite common. Adding a group of cellos becomes more and more fashionable. The soprano sax also gets used more and more in the standard repertoire for winds.

Other notable trends:

The use of pre-recorded samples.

Many concerts are given thematic organization i.e. “music from the movies” or “of tales and legends.”

Large-scale pop and rock arrangements including full choir, such as The Queen Symphony by Tolga Kashif have become very popular.

There has been a growth of serious concert series in the regular concert halls and theaters. It has also become ‘hip’ to perform at non-typical concert venues, like an old factory or an art gallery.

The traditional uniforms are slowly disappearing – more and more ensembles perform in tuxedos, black costumes, and dresses.

Almost all ensembles, conductors and composers are using social media to announce and promote their concerts and other activities. Some orchestras now post complete performances on Facebook.

Nowadays, almost all young and starting composers are self-publishing, versus finding a ‘traditional’ publisher.

As a composer, I always try to come up with new sounds and for every new piece I write. On the other hand, I am trying to continue the tradition of integrating folk music into the wind music literature, following the great tradition by composers such as Holst, Grainger, Vaughan Williams, and Darius Milhaud.

In general, I can report three important elements in my own works:

1) Expanding the use of spaces outside the stage.

2) The use of objects and rare or non-musical instruments.

3) Incorporating existing music, such as folk music and classical themes.

Examples of using more of the concert stage and hall:

Dutch Masters Suite: four different ensembles take over the stage and beyond, each one of them playing. 

Spring: off-stage solo soprano and flugelhorn, backstage alto sax and alto horn.

Summer: off-stage saxophone quartet.

Extreme Beethoven: a small ensemble marches in, playing something different from the ensemble on stage, and disappears again.

 Via Claudia: calls for an off-stage alphorn (in F). 

Fellini: a circus band is placed outside the concert hall, in the lobby or the foyer of the theater. The alto sax soloist is the personification of a clown, who uses a makeup table and a sofa on stage, and he/she walks to the circus band and back to the podium. The soloist has become an actor as well.

Echoes of San Marco: two brass quartets are positioned in the back of the concert hall or church.

Some examples of using objects and rare or non-musical instruments:

The Wind in the Willows: a large rack with pots and pans, brake drums, chains and other metal objects are thrown on the floor, to imitate the car crash of Mr. Toad.

Dutch Masters Suite: the 2nd movement is scored for a lute and female voices (from the orchestra); Movement 3 calls for a harpsichord. 

Extreme Makeover: calls for 10 tuned bottles, tuned as D-E-G#-A-B in two octaves.

Wind Power: has a part for a couple of Vuvuzelas (plastic trumpets, as seen and heard during the 2010 FIFA World Cup Soccer in South Africa).

 At Kitty O’Shea’s employs typical Irish instruments: penny whistle, banjo, guitar, accordion, bodhran, spoons etc.

 Cloud Factory: a huge instrumentation for the percussion, including thunder sheets, chains, brake drums and a siren. All players have empty cans and aluminum foil for “special effects.”

Symphony No. 4 ‘Sinfonie der Lieder’: rustling leaves in a bucket, with the percussion section, to connect movements 4 and 5.

Symphony No. 5 ‘Return to Middle Earth: movement five calls for four large oil drums, with broom stick mallets, the choir uses rocks, stamp their feet, whisper, scream – all but singing!

Tryptichon: the percussion section must use tuned knifes! While I was cooking at home, I discovered that a specific knife (Cuisinard) is tuned in C. You can make great bouncing rhythms on a slap of marble. 

Incorporating existing music:

Folk Music: Polish Christmas Music, Dutch Masters Suite (16th century Dutch love and drinking songs), Songs from the Lowlands (16th– & 17th century Dutch patriotic, love and drinking songs), Spring (Swedish folk music), Summer (Finnish folk music), and Songs from the Catskills. At Kitty O’Shea’s, Celtic Classics and Pennsylvania Faux Songs (Irish and American folk music)

Classical Themes: Extreme Makeover (Pjotr Ilyich Tchaikowsky), Dutch Masters Suite (John Dowland) Extreme Beethoven (Ludwig van Beethoven) and Echoes of San Marco (Giovanni Gabrieli).

In summary, the wind orchestra world is in full-blown, nonstop motion with many exciting forces at play. There are great reasons to be optimistic that this profusion of development and creativity will continue to surge. That coupled with increasingly skillful musicianship bodes extraordinarily well for a culturally rich and prosperous future for wind orchestras worldwide. I am happy to be a part of these sweeping changes and I must say, I am enjoying the ride.

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