By Michael Boo
With concerts by the Honor Orchestra of America and the Honor Band of America, the Music for All National Festival, presented by Yamaha, culminated three days of glorious music making by 31 bands, orchestras and percussion ensembles from middle schools and high schools. The festival was comprised of four individual festivals; the National Concert Band Festival, the Orchestra America National Festival, the Sandy Feldstein National Percussion Festival and the Middle School National Music Festival.
From across America, concert band, jazz band and orchestra members submitted recorded auditions to be considered for the three prestigious honor ensembles, with those selected coming to Indianapolis for two to three grueling days of intense rehearsals. The Jazz Band of America, under the direction of pianist and composer Shelly Berg, performed at Clowes Memorial Hall on the campus of Butler University on the evening of Friday, March 18, 2011.
The same night, the Honor Orchestra of America, under the direction of worldwide conductor and motivational speaker Larry Livingston of the University of Southern California, put on a concert at the downtown Indianapolis Hilbert Circle Theatre as part of a shared concert with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. Finally, on Saturday, the Honor Band of America delivered a grand finale concert at Clowes Memorial Hall under the baton of Richard Clary, professor and conductor at Florida State University.
The lush, low brass opening chorale of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Overture to Nabucco” resonated through the hall when the Honor Orchestra of America commenced its set. Listening to the rapid, technical passages of the strings, it was difficult to accept that the orchestra had only been together as an ensemble for just a couple days, proving that given the best student musicians in America, anything is possible under equally impressive leadership.
The heart of the Honor Orchestra of America’s program was the third movement from Mark O’Connor’s “Improvised Violin Concerto for Violin and Orchestra,” an American folk music-inspired offering featuring the composer as soloist. Think of it as sort of like Vaughan Williams meets bluegrass, with hints of southern gospel, blues, hoedown and swing thrown into the eclectic musical stew. It was so obvious the members of the orchestra were intensely enjoying themselves during this exuberant tour-de-force.
Afterwards, the composer/soloist stated, “The great thing about young musicians in this honors orchestra is that they learn extremely fast. So while at the first rehearsal we grappled with some of the rhythms and phrases, by concert time, they were assimilating everything, playing just as well as I was playing! Larry Livingston did an incredible job as conductor, teaching them about my American style of orchestral music. Tonight was proof that American orchestral repertoire can both challenge and excite young musicians to play incredibly, and they sure brought it home!”
The final piece on the program was Gustav Mahler’s “Symphony No. 1, ‘Titan,’ Movement 4.” It was thrilling to hear the various sections of the orchestra rise up to the awesome challenge of playing such a demanding work. The darker harmonies required of the brass rattled the chandeliers; the strings were audibly focusing on not just playing their melodies, but shaping them; the woodwind solos were all impeccable and the percussion delivered brute force when required. With the members showing grace, power and expressiveness well beyond their years, the audience awarded them with a standing ovation that lasted about five minutes.
Afterwards, Maestro Livingston commented on the importance of performing the violin concerto. “I am in debt to Music for All for securing Mark O’Connor, making a statement about the importance of American culture. Mark is on a crusade with his clinics and method books to demystify American music. He’s like a Mark Appleseed, planting the seed of the American culture in young string players.
“I wanted to do the O’Connor work because kids today are growing up [with] a new view of music with their iPods. In framing the classical traditions of music with American rhythmic reflections, he’s translated the music from another zip code, taking the students down south and teaching them the authentic style so it’s not square. All music has groove; the students grew up with groove, but are usually not allowed to play it in traditional music.”
The Music for All National Festival concluded with the Honor Band of America concert, hosted for the 18th consecutive year by Carl Grapentine of classical music station WFMT-FM Chicago. Carl provided informative commentary between each selection and was declared by Music for All President and CEO Eric L. Martin to be the “Voice of American Band.”
New this year were performances by two Vandoren Emerging Artist winners, one before each half of the concert. Saxophonist Brian Clancy from Southlake, Texas had already performed with the Jazz Band of America the night before. Emil Khudyev of Turkmenistan played a solo clarinet work before the first half of the Honor Band of America concert and Phil Pierick, a master’s degree student at the University of Illinois, performed on alto saxophone prior to the start of the second half.
As it has the past two years, the concert kicked off with Jack Stamp’s treatment of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” directed by Music for All’s Senior Educational Consultant, Gary Markham. The lovely strains of this unique symphonic treatment only get better with age, and Markham let the last chord reverberate long enough for members of the audience to feel the chills run down their spines.
Amy Acklin, assistant conductor/pianist for the band, then conducted Paul Basler’s “Mangulina,” an athletically vibrant work based on Dominican Republic dance rhythms. With vivacious pyrotechnic fireworks shooting off all around the stage in a celebration of optimism, one had to wonder how the ensemble was able to pull off the piece after so few days of rehearsal.
Next, Richard Clary took the podium and conducted John Mackey’s “Hymn to a Blue Hour,” capturing the essence of the magic of ethereal twilight, just prior to the loss of all daylight. Hovering tone clusters and the tension of the disappearing light ultimately settled high above the confines of earth, as if looking down from the clouds.
Vaclav Nelhybel’s “Trittico” has been a staple of band literature since it was written in 1964 for University of Michigan’s William D. Revelli. It’s a work that never fails to make one’s blood boil with exhilaration. The urgency of the propulsive first movement left an impression the band had somewhere important to go and was running late. Maestro Clary extracted every ounce of angst from the slightly ominous second movement, and the blazing third movement was as fiery as could possibly be.
After a short intermission, three new inductees into Music for All’s Bands of America Hall of Fame were introduced to the audience. Debbie Laferty Asbill has been a fixture on the Music for All staff since 1985, serving as Director of Marketing and Communications. Richard Floyd had already won several awards over his 49 years as a music educator in Texas. He has also worked as a clinician or evaluator for Bands of America for nearly every year of the organization’s existence. Michael Rubino also adjudicates for BOA, and his Live Oak (California) High School won the very first Marching Bands of America (later BOA) Summer National Championship back in 1975.
Jonathan Newman’s “De Profundis” is one of the most unique works to have ever been performed on a Music for All Honor Band of America concert. Based on the medieval plainchant, “Out of the Depth Have I Cried Out for Thee, My Lord,” (based on Psalms 130), the work utilized rumbling dissonances and an anguished, cataclysmic mist of tone clusters throughout its long build through confusion and hopelessness to reach a glorious statement of hope, ending with pounding drums fading to oblivion.
The final work on the concert was Allen Vizzutti’s “Rising Sun,” with Allen as the virtuosic trumpet soloist. The work was inspired by his journeys to Japan and freely incorporates pentatonic scales to capture the aura of the sun rising over Mount Fuji. Vizzutti opened the work on piccolo trumpet, re-creating the lyrical mood of a Japanese flute welcoming the new day in a formal garden, leading into a section that hurtled eagerly into the sunlit surroundings. The second movement, written for band and flugelhorn, was akin to sitting and staring at the grandeur of Mount Fuji. When the B-flat trumpet took over, one could feel the rays of sunshine suddenly emblazoned on the peak and one’s own cheeks. The quick-paced third movement featured lots of arpeggiated figures and seemed to be giving the image of looking down upon the magnificent countryside in celebration. A wicked, lip-busting cadenza enraptured the audience in stunned amazement.
Vizzutti closed the concert with an unaccompanied rendition of “Carnival of Venice,” combining themes from Herbert L. Clarke’s famous solo version with ideas of his own, including a segment where he played a seemingly impossible burst of octave-jumping notes while rotating the trumpet, demonstrating his consummate showmanship.
Afterwards, Vizzutti commented, “Both the Honor Band of America and Jazz Band of America members were very mature. When the music making sounds so natural, another level of expression is possible. Richard Clary is a great communicator; able to keep the intensity of a band so large requires a lot of focus on behalf of the conductor and the members. This was truly a unique experience.”
Maestro Clary stated, “These are the best student musicians and young citizens the country has to offer. It was fascinating to watch them learn from each other. So many had never been in such a high-pressure environment, and they had to endure that all day Thursday until tonight. It’s a testimony to their adrenal glands that they can even stand up after all that.”
The next Music for All National Festival will be held in Indianapolis on March 15-17, 2012. Come enjoy and appreciate America’s finest youth musicians making remarkable music.
Michael Boo holds a Bachelor of Music Education degree and a Master of Music in Composition and Theory. He writes for Music for All and WGI and is the Staff Writer for Drum Corps International. A published composer, he’s traveling to China this summer for the sixth year in a row for various premiers of his works.