Frost Wind Ensemble displays 21st-century brilliance with two new works

By Lawrence Budmen

Svet Stoyanov performed Jennfer Higdon's Percussion Concerto Sunday with the Frost Wind Ensemble.

Gary Green brought a typically enterprising Frost Wind Ensemble program to Festival Miami on Sunday afternoon. New concert band versions of two orchestral works by American composers and the long overdue revival of a major score by a twentieth-century master formed the ambitious bill of fare.

The works of Paul Hindemith were once almost as ubiquitous on concert programs as the music of Stravinsky. With the exception of the Symphonic Metamorphoses on Themes of Carl Maria von Weber, his scores have largely fallen off the repertoire radar. A rigorous craftsman who admired the architecture of Baroque music and refused to embrace atonality, Hindemith forged his own compositional voice. 

Written in 1951 for the United States Army Band, the Symphony in B-flat is prime Hindemith. Replete with the composer’s signature thematic cells, bristling figurations and thorny counterpoint ( alluding to Hindemith’s reverence for Bach), the score suggests darker undercurrents beneath the brassy sinew. Fanfares that could sound mundane in lesser hands are charged with blazing eloquence through Hindemith’s mastery.

Under Green’s robust direction, the players brought well-drilled precision and contagious enthusiasm to this landmark score, one of the first modern symphonies for wind ensemble.  The performance could have benefited from more finely terraced dynamics, particularly in Gusman Concert Hall’s very live acoustic. Still this was a worthy resuscitation of an important score by a composer whose vast output deserves to be heard more frequently.

Like the late Frederick Fennell (who spent fifteen years at the University of Miami in the 1960′s and 70′s), Green is a vigorous proponent of new repertoire for wind band. The two new scores on the program were real crowd pleasers.

Paul Dooley’s Point Blank is a winning vignette of repetitive mechanized rhythm in the manner of John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Based on electronic musical material, Dooley transcribes computer-generated sounds for mallet percussion, descending octaves from woodwinds and double bass underpinning the wild musical ride. Ingeniusly conceived, Dooley’s score delights in bright timbral color and relentless sonic thunder.

Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto was also originally conceived for symphony orchestra. In pre-performance remarks, Higdon said she prefers the wind ensemble version and it would be hard to disagree after the brilliant performance by the charismatic Svet Stoyanov and Green’s terrific, highly engaged players.

Adding two harps, piano and bass to the color palette, Higdon opens with sustained chords on solo marimba which morph into jazzy tunes, accompanied by an enlarged percussion section. In the central episode, the soloist bows the mallet instruments, producing wonderfully eerie sonorities. A stirring Aaron Copland-style theme launches the aggressive final section, capped by a powerhouse cadenza on trap set, wood blocks and Chinese gong. Challenging for soloist and ensemble alike, Higdon’s superbly crafted score is rich with melody and colorful instrumental sonorities.

Stoyanov was a wizard of the  percussion. Often playing at lightning pace, Stoyanov coaxed sounds both tinkling and raucous from the large percussion battery. Higdon and Dooley shared the prolonged standing ovation with Stoyanov and Green at the concert’s conclusion.

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Mon Oct 8, 2012
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