EDITOR’S NOTE: The University Symphony Band will perform four new works at the tour kick-off concert 8 p.m. Thursday, May 5. at Hill Auditorium. Two days later, the band departs for China.
By Garrett Schumann & Betsy Goolian
While the University Symphony Band prepares to depart for its May tour of China, it has been hard at work, going over new scores by faculty composers William Bolcom, Michael Daugherty, Kristin Kuster, and Bright Sheng. During the rehearsal process, the composers typically show up once the musicians have mastered the playing. Then they can hear it on its feet, often for the first time, and clear up any problems or glitches.
Each of the four composers took a different approach, tailoring a work with the tour in mind. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer emeritus William Bolcom (photo right) took his Concerto Grosso for saxophone quartet and orchestra and transcribed it for symphony band, but still with the saxophone quartet as “soloist,” playing off the ensemble. In this instance, that foursome is named the Donald Sinta Saxophone Quartet, in honor of their saxophone professor who also happens to be an alumnus—and featured soloist—of the William Revelli tour to the Soviet Union fifty years ago.
The original Concerto Grosso was written to emphasize the foreignness of saxophones against an orchestra’s strings. Now that Bolcom’s created this new transcription, he told the Muse, he suspects it may have always belonged as a work for concert band. Inscribed with Bolcom’s signature fingerprint, combining popular and classical genres, here a juxtaposition of 1950s R&B with the 18th-century ‘concert grosso’ concept, this arrangement takes on new colors and character. Here, the band reacts to, counters, and participates in those worlds to varying degrees throughout the piece.
As a transcription for band, the emphasis shifts from any perceived dissonance between saxophones and strings to an overwhelming sense of Americana. Concerto Grosso becomes a celebration, a nostalgic party to honor the days of slicked-back hair and powder blue tuxedos. Though a caricature of real American life, it creates an indelible image of our culture, making it a touchstone of the Symphony Band’s musical and diplomatic objectives this May.
Grammy Award-winner Michael Daugherty (photo left) wrote Lost Vegas, a new work, for the tour to China. No stranger to works for concert band, Daugherty has collaborated with Symphony Band conductor Michael Haithcock in the past.
As Daugherty told the Muse, “Almost everyone in the world has heard of Las Vegas and has some idea of its iconic place in American culture.” The work is a pristine representation of what Las Vegas used to be, like a mint condition cast iron lunch box covered with decals of Elvis, preserved by a collector as a token of a lost past.
The difference between a piece of memorabilia and Daugherty’s music is the complexity he packs behind the work’s glossy veneer, looking back in time through a highly stylized lens. With driving percussion and booming brass, Lost Vegas makes the most of the Symphony Band’s “pizzazz and precision” and its striking performance energy and ability to execute complex rhythms. As with so many of Daugherty’s works, it paints a very clear musical image, almost like the score to an imagined film.
The sonic landscape evokes Daugherty’s own idealized vision of the golden city of the desert, glistening in the sun by day, corrupt and seedy at night. Though no evil lurks within its network of mixed meter and polyrhythms, Lost Vegas—just like the City of Sin—is less innocent than its clear and tuneful first impression lets on to be.
If Bolcom’s Concerto Grosso and Daugherty’s Lost Vegas represent moments from the past, Kristin Kuster’s concerto for violin and band, Two Jades, is just the opposite. Kuster “writes commandingly for the orchestra,” with music that has “an invitingly tart edge” (New York Times). The composer often takes inspiration from architectural space, the weather, and mythology.
This time, inspiration came from an object of art contained within an architectural space. While beginning work on this concerto, Kuster (photo left) spent time at U-M’s Museum of Art, looking through the Chinese collections for something that she could use as “an impetus for musical ideas.”
When she came across two jade pieces at the bottom of a display case, a bi (circle) disc and a cong (square) tube which date back to the Stone Age in China, she became engrossed in the idea of using these artifacts as a scaffold to fill in with her individual artistic perspective. What emerged was Two Jades, written to feature violinist and Michigan alumnus Xiang Gao (BM ’96, MM ’97).
Both composer and violinist acknowledged the challenges inherent in balancing a solo violin with a forceful concert band. To that effect, Kuster deliberately limited the time the soloist must contend with the entire concert band, including a rebelliously slow and brief cadenza accompanied by seven triangles. The true test came in the work’s early rehearsals, but, as Kuster told the Muse: “I absolutely trust Michael Haithcock’s ears.”
Faculty composer and MacArthur Fellow Bright Sheng (photo below left with USB conductor Michael Haithcock) is the living embodiment of the East-West cultural bridge the Symphony Band hopes to construct when it heads to China this May. As he told the Muse, “I have always considered myself 100% American and 100% Chinese,” and the work—a band transcription, commissioned by the Linda and Maurice Binkow Philanthropic Fund, of his 2007 orchestral work Shanghai Overture—speaks to the deep and personal mixture of eastern and western ideas present in all his compositions.
Sheng grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, when young people were sent to the provinces for “reeducation.” It was during those years that he was immersed in regional folk music, an influence that cannot be denied in his subsequent work. For Shanghai Overture, he cites neo-classicism, à la Igor Stravinsky, as a primary inspiration, but only indirectly. He chose to impose the principles of this style—namely, light orchestration and clear textures—onto chiefly Chinese subjects, including the popular traditional Chinese compositions General’s Degree and Purple Bamboo.
Like Bolcom’s Concerto Grosso, Shanghai Overture leans heavily on winds, brass, and percussion, so much so that bowed strings do not appear until over two minutes into the work. Its percussion section is unique to Sheng’s background, using many traditional Chinese instruments.
The unique colors these bring to Shanghai Overture and its use of Chinese musical themes make it the most exotic of the four. But its spirit remains akin to the fusion found in Bolcom’s Concerto Grosso. Sheng’s work rests on the same fundamental principle as the other works for the Symphony Band: drawing together disparate musical resources to inscribe a clear image through the elastic capabilities of the concert band.
Both implicitly in these compositions and explicitly in conversation with Michigan Muse, these composers recognize the extraordinary ability of Michael Haithcock and the players of the Symphony Band. The band version of Shanghai Overture is dedicated to the Symphony Band and the train of smiles on Michael Daugherty’s face during rehearsals of Lost Vegas betrays the pleasure and honor he feels working with this student group.
Haithcock reciprocates this enthusiasm, particularly in terms of his role as an educator to the students he conducts. “Commissioning new works has become a Michigan tradition,” he told the Muse; we’re dedicated to it. That sort of hot-house environment is why we’re here. We’re preparing students to live in an ever-changing landscape, so there’s always going to be music of the past and music of the future.”
This zest for exposing players to living composers is unique and certainly part of Kristin Kuster’s reason for asserting “the college band world is our greatest supporter.”
Garrett Schumann is a graduate student studying composition at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance. Betsy Goolian is a writer for the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance.