2017 New York International Music Festival
Gwent Youth Wind Orchestra, Wales, United Kingdom
Sean O’Neill, director
Virginia Tech Wind Ensemble and Combined Choirs, Blacksburg, Virginia
Jonathan Caldwell, Dwight Bigler, conductors
Deborah Lee Gibbs, master of ceremonies
Stern Auditorium at Carnegie Hall, New York, NY
April 11, 2017
Carnegie Hall was the venue for a series of concerts of the 2017 New York International Musical Festival. The evening showcase concert featured the Gwent Youth Wind Orchestra from Wales, and the Virginia Tech Wind Ensemble and Combined Choirs. Also featured was world renowned euphonium player David Childs, who was the soloist in two World Premiere works that he commissioned. Master of Ceremonies Deborah Lee Gibbs introduced each group.
Program notes were only provided for the two World Premiere works. While it was nice that the Master of Ceremonies spoke briefly of each work, it was more of a “reading of the menu,” rather than offering much explanation or history of the works. I’m sure this was done to economize on printing costs (there were several concerts using the same program booklet, with only minor changes), but this, coupled with the curious placement of each group’s selection as if it were parenthetical, was vexing. The majority of the works played were not so well-known that they would not need some explanation or context.
The Gwent Youth Wind Orchestra, led by Sean O’Neill, took the stage for the first half. They offered six works (two World Premieres), five by Welsh composers, with the sixth by Arturo Márquez. The Gwent is open by audition to players up to college age. The rough equivalent in the United States would probably be a High School Honor Band. As one might expect, there is often some unevenness in the quality of the players, and this was no exception. That’s not meant to be a criticism, for the overall level of play was generally excellent, but it is just a reality of having a group with constantly changing personnel. The most problematic area was intonation, some of which one could attribute to nerves, but some to inexperience (e.g. the low D – concert C – at the end of Abide With Me is a notoriously sharp note on the B-flat Trumpet, which requires either a third valve slide adjustment or one brought about from embouchure to bring it into tune).
Now that I’ve gotten these issues mentioned it is time to move on to the positive, of which there was much to praise. The opening work, Prismatic Light by Alan Fernie, was boldly played, with precision and a festive feeling. Gareth Wood’s Salome – Rhapsody for Band has a grotesque, heathenish quality that the Gwent played up to the hilt – an impressive performance of a demanding work. Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez, a popular and much-loved work, had the right amount of restraint that lesser groups often fail to maintain, and it showed the Gwent to the maximum advantage.
Now it is time to say a few words about the featured soloist. The story of the violin virtuoso Paganini is well known. Some said he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his virtuosity. It seems that Paganini was re-born in Wales, but instead of the violin, this new incarnation has taken to the euphonium. Disguised as the mild-mannered David Childs, the wizardry was on full display on the stage of Carnegie Hall. This is only half in jest – Mr. Childs possesses a mind-boggling technique that would be the envy of not only euphonium players, but many a trumpet player as well, especially in the clarity of his high-speed passagework and articulation. Usually with the larger brass, the faster the playing, the muddier the sound, but not so with Mr. Childs. Coupled with this, his extreme upper range tone is bright and clear, without a hint of strain.
Seren Wen (White Star) Euphonium Concerto was the first of the commissioned World Premiere works. The program notes quote composer Bernard Kane as saying: “I’ve used the ‘White Star’ as the title of the work…It was the Line of the Titanic, who’s [sic] distress signal was first heard in the Welsh Village of Pontllanfriath, some 3000 miles away from where Titanic hit that fatal iceberg … It is not a tone poem about the sinking, rather the story being the work’s impetus and the link with Wales.” I found this all puzzling, the relevance tenuous at best, not to mention the highly debatable claim regarding the distress signal (this reviewer is a long-time Titanic enthusiast). In any case, the work is a showcase for Mr. Childs’ virtuosity, with writing emphasizing his strengths (as listed above). It was a dazzling display.
The second World Premiere was the beautiful Welsh Prayer by Paul Mealor. It’s not showy, but requires great control to maintain its lyrical quality. Of course, Mr. Childs has this ability in spades, and I would not be surprised if this work figures into his regular repertoire.
After Abide With Me, as arranged by Karl Jenkins, the audience, which included many from Wales (many carrying the national flag), gave the performers a standing ovation. Da Iawn!
After Intermission the Virginia Wind Ensemble Tech and Combined Choirs took the stage. Before all else, it is notable to mention the great level of preparation and organization from Virginia Tech. Each stage change (and there were several) was accomplished in record time without any fuss at all, something I wish many other concerts would take as an example. What was disappointing was the complete lack of program notes and texts for their selections.
The Wind Ensemble with Combined Choirs led off. Conductor Jonathan Caldwell led a lively performance of Percy Grainger’s charming I’m Seventeen Come Sunday. Dwight Bigler then took the podium to conduct his work I Shall Not Live In Vain, which was moving.
The Chamber Singers, conducted by Mr. Bigler, offered three works. The first, William Byrd’s Sing Joyfullly had good balance, clear diction, and precise intonation. The second, Rivers of Light by Ēriks Ešenvalds (with one of the chorus playing a mouth harp), was hauntingly beautiful. The last, the third and final movement, Strike, of Gene Koshinski’s Concerto for Marimba and Choir with Percussion, is one of the more unusual works this listener has heard. Featuring Assistant Professor of Percussion Annie Stevens, this highly entertaining selection had a tribal, primitive feel. It would have been helpful to know the “back story” for his work to gain more insight.
Jonathan Caldwell then led the Wind Ensemble in Mason Bates’ Mothership, with soloists Jason Crafton (Assistant Professor of Trumpet), and Alan Weinstein (Associate Professor of Cello) playing an electric cello. It’s a scherzo-like work, with 21st-century idioms, such as techno rhythms. It’s a fun work, with electronic atmospheric touches, “visiting soloists to the docked Mothership,” and action-packed writing for all. The Wind Ensemble treated the listener to a ten-minute otherworldly romp.
To close the concert, Mr. Bigler returned to the podium to conduct the Wind Ensemble and Combined Choirs in his work Three Appalachian Songs. The whimsical Cluck Old Hen, the mournful Poor Wayfarin’ Stranger, with soprano soloist Ariana Wyatt (Assistant Professor of Voice), and the exultant Sourwood Mountain brought the night to a rousing close. The audience, which included ensembles that had performed in the earlier afternoon concert, gave the combined forces a loud and long ovation.