AT THE BEGINNING of Frank Ticheli’s coåmplex and brilliant piece Angels in the Architecture, the first thing an audience hears is the haunting whistle of air produced by three rubber tubes being swung furiously by a percussionist. The otherworldly and delicate sound of tuned wine glasses follows, giving way to a soprano soloist who sings an old Shaker song called “Angel of Light.” Then, and only then, does the brass slide in underneath — a shifting tectonic plate of sound — to destabilize the sonorities just established. There’s nary an oom-pah to be heard.
Ticheli’s piece, which premiered at the Sydney Opera House in 2008 and was released on disc last year, is just one of the many new and daring compositions written specifically for the wind ensemble, or concert band. “It flies in the face of your average Joe’s impression of the stereotypical concert band sound,” says Ticheli, who is a professor of composition at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music.
The American composer has built a reputation as one of the foremost composers of concert band music, which Ticheli says is going through a growth spurt. “Concert bands are building their canon,” he says. “There’s more music happening here than in any other medium.”
It seems the wind ensemble’s image needs a makeover. In the popular imagination, wind bands remain rooted in the European and American traditions of the military band, with heavy emphasis on marches and other ceremonial pieces. Of course, those bands still thrive, including the five bands of the U.S. armed forces, but the wider culture of wind bands is alive with innovation and enthusiasm. “The quality of music for wind bands, and the repertoire, has gotten more and more exciting over the last twenty years,” says Ticheli.
A culture of commissioning is flourishing across the country, most prominently driven not by professional ensembles but university and college wind bands. From the University of Southern California to Texas to Michigan to Indiana to Rutgers, this tight-knit community of musicians is devoted to building and premiering new concert music for winds. “We are the instigators of forming this repertoire,” says Eric Rombach-Kendall, the director of bands at the University of New Mexico. He’s also the president-elect of the College Band Director National Association (CBDNA), which serves — according to its website — as a “dynamic hub connecting individuals to communities, ideas and resources.” The CBDNA is a forum for promoting serious wind music; it organizes conferences, holds competitions for bands, publishes a newsletter and recently sponsored a series of short broadcasts on NPR to highlight wind music in America.
University wind bands are able to commission, according to Rombach-Kendall, because of “the collective effort of the whole community.” College band directors share the common goal of building repertoire, which has led to the forming of consortia between universities, enabling schools to solicit funds together and allowing everyone to buy in to a new work — whether it costs $5,000 or the $100,000+ required for a large-scale work from a big-name composer.
Rombach-Kendall recently organized a consortium to commission a “double trombone concerto” from American composer Joseph Turrin. Written for Joseph Alessi, principal trombonist of the New York Philharmonic, and jazz trombonist Marshall Gilkes, it premieres in April at the University of New Mexico. “I wanted something to mix the jazz and the classical genres together,” says Rombach-Kendall. “We’re really trying to enrich the DNA of our repertoire.”
Another advantage of the consortium system is that the piece will get plenty of outings all over the country from concert bands that bought in to the commission. Says Rombach-Kendall, “For the composer, it’s an opportunity to get their voice heard in, say, fifteen performances,” which, he says, compares favorably with a commission by a major orchestra, where a work may receive only a couple of outings before it goes to the archive.
This fact is not lost on major composers whose work for wind bands gets played and played. Colleges are not bashful about commissioning works from the likes of William Bolcom, whose First Symphony for Band was premiered in February 2009 by the University of Michigan’s Symphony Band. Other popular composers include Joan Tower, whose notable work includes Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman, scored for three trumpets, four horns, three trombones, tuba and percussion, and John Corigliano, who wrote Circus Maximus — Symphony No. 3 for Large Wind Ensemble.
In his program note to the piece, published in 2004, Corigliano’s thoughts on the wind band are worth quoting at length:
The repertoire of band music is largely contemporary. As a result, the audiences expect and look forward to new works. Listening in an environment largely ignored by the press, they learn to trust their own ears and respond directly to what they hear. Most important of all, concert bands devote large amounts of rehearsal time over a period of weeks — not days — to learning thoroughly the most challenging of scores.