Frost Wind Ensemble delivers a Colgrass epic with “Winds of Nagual”

By Lawrence Budmen

Robert Caronchan conducted the Frost Wind Ensemble in Michael Colgrass’s Winds of Nagual Sunday at UM Gusman Concert Hall.

Over nearly five decades, Michael Colgrass (1932-2019) created a wide and diversified body of works. The American-born Canadian composer was especially acclaimed for his wind ensemble scores. 

In 1985 Colgrass wrote Winds of Nagual, a monumental tone poem that, in many ways, topped all his previous efforts. On Sunday afternoon Robert Carnochan led the Frost Wind Ensemble in a rare yet top-notch performance of Colgrass’s kaleidoscopic creation at UM Gusman Concert Hall.

Subtitled “A Musical Fable,” Winds of Nagual is based on Carlos Castaneda’s chronicle of his fourteen-year apprenticeship with Don Juan Matis, a Mexican Indian sorcerer. A solemn brass chorale announces Don Juan’s initial emergence from the mountains while solo clarinet introduces Carlos’ theme in spiky riffs that reference Colgrass’s early career as a jazz drummer in big bands. Don Genaro, Juan’s comic counterpart, is pictured by a mariachi-tinged theme. Spare lines on harp and celesta picture the stillness of a river while, as Carlos becomes a floating bubble, the water’s ripples flow through atmospheric modernist impressionism. 

Harsh brass, piano and percussion depict Carlos leaping across boulders and his battle with a terrifying monster, an ecstatic fanfare proclaiming his triumph. Beautiful exotic harmonies form a dance at twilight. Don Juan’s clowning is set to a melody that could have come from one of Copland’s Latin-influenced miniatures. A long spun, deeply eloquent theme rises to a stirring climax as Carlos and Don Juan bid farewell. Wild explosions erupt in the ensemble as Carlos jumps from a mountain into the abyss of a thousand views of the world.

This fanciful tale is set to music that bristles with rhythmic momentum while the nature painting is rich in instrumental coloration and inspired thematic threads. The score’s twenty five minutes seem considerably shorter, thanks to Colgrass’s inventive thematic flow, varied instrumental hues and fine ear for individual timbres and the power of corporate musical vistas. Solos for nearly every instrument provide variety and depth of expression. The work’s quiet final pages are beautifully sustained, almost a fade out. Colgrass’s canvass is so brilliantly crafted that a loud, audience-catching ending is hardly necessary.

Winds of Nagual is one of the finest works in the wind band repertoire and the Frost players were more than equal to its demands. Carnochan directed a bristling performance that throbbed with energy, dynamic thrust and supple variations of dynamics and balance. He deftly highlighted the harp and keyboard lines and the two double basses were never submerged even in the loudest passages. Solos from flute, saxophone, clarinetand numerous brass were assayed with spot-on clarity. One could hardly wish for a finer reading of this unique score.

In the program’s first half, Connor Frederick was the soloist in Henri Tomasi’s Trombone Concerto, heard in a transcription for winds by Donald Patterson. A pleasant but slight work, Tomasi’s concerto is nevertheless a worthy addition to the small body of solo repertoire for the instrument. The pensive second movement provides the score’s best moments. Soloist Connor Frederick spun the muted nocturnal melody winningly. Frederick’s large tonal range and firm control were equally impressive in the motoric “Tambourine” finale. Carnochan provided attentive support.

The concert opened with D’un matin de printemps (Of a spring morning) by Lili Boulanger (1893-1918).  The first woman to win the Prix de Rome composition prize, Boulanger was the younger sister of legendary pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. Considered one of France’s rising compositional stars, her death at age 24 was a tragic loss. Originally written for violin and piano and then for full orchestra, Boulanger’s five-minute vignette was presented in a wind transcription by Frost graduate conducting associate Jack Hontz. 

Bristling figurations suggest the music of Albert Roussel while the languor of the central section sings in a distinctly French brand of romance. Hontz conducted his arrangement for high winds and drew lively, well integrated playing from his colleagues.

Robert Carnochan conducts the Frost Wind Ensemble in music of Mason Bates 7:30 p.m. March 11, 2022 at UM Gusman Concert Hall in Coral Gables.

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Mon Nov 15, 2021
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