Symphonic Winds wades in bold, contemporary waters

Many so-called cultured people, classical musicians among them, grimace at the thought of contemporary music. They avoid it entirely because it is unfamiliar. Symphonic Winds and the Opus Zero Band, both conducted by Steven Dennis Bodner, have been trying to change that perception for nine years. Whether or not they’ve been successful, it is clear – even from this past year – that the ensembles are taking on increasingly daring and difficult contemporary pieces. Symphonic Winds and Opus Zero took yet another step forward during Icons, their concert held last Saturday night in Chapin Hall.

The first piece, Cathedrals (2007), composed by Kathryn Salfelder, a master’s student at the Yale School of Music, was a short but incredibly joyous performance by the Symphonic Winds. Bodner had arranged performers on stage as well as in the side balconies for an immersive effect. From upstage, a cymbal grew gradually until its climax gave way to soft, muted sounds from the ensemble, as if exploring a new land, unsure of what lay ahead in the misty fog. The horns continued their steady but ominous rhythms, heightening the dramatic effect, before leading the ensemble into a triumphant theme whose majesty transported the audience back to the age when trumpets saluted royalty. Waves of crescendos swept over the music, then receded; in the background, trumpets on either side balcony played off each other in a duet style. The true climax came quickly, led by the brass, culminating in complete dissonance, punctuated by the crashing of cymbals. A lone xylophone ventured from the ensuing confusion tentatively and other percussive instruments soon joined, crafting a light-hearted atmosphere. As the winds and brass returned, the music began feeling exuberant and giddy. The piece ended with a return to the beginning; muted murmurs once again concluded in a proud and harmonious triumph.

Opus Zero then played Swedish composer Klas Torsensson’s Self-portrait with percussion (2006), itself broken into nine movements, which is the fifth and final work in an even larger series called the Lantern Lectures. The percussion soloist was Matthew Gold, instructor of percussion at the College and director of the Williams Percussion Ensemble. Unlike typical soloists, Gold performed on a number of instruments, including tubular bells and a floor tom-tom drum. The first movement, titled “Procession I,”consisited of rapid movement between Gold on the synthesizer and Nina Piazza ’12 on marimba, accompanied by a low woodwind echo. Its ending rang out clearly, distinctly and unexpectedly on a single note of the so-called reception bell. Later movements four and eight, “Procession II” and “Procession III,” respectively, echoed similar musical motifs to unify the diverse movements. One of the most fascinating was the seventh movement, “Bowed vowels,” in which Gold rubbed a wooden bow against a metal object to generate high-pitched harmonic sounds. This sound was picked up by the violinists, who played false harmonics against the bass line. In Self-portrait, Torsensson ventures beyond the realms of other modern composers to explore the creation of music, while beautifully bringing closure with the “Percussion” movements.

Following intermission, the Symphonic Winds opened with The Leaves Are Falling (1964), written by Warren Benson, a self-taught and highly innovative American composer. A single low clock-tower chime opened the piece with a slow but inexorably steady striking. Two flutists began a chant-like melody in their lower registers. As the woodwinds overlaid their own haunting melodies, the chime progressively rose higher and higher in pitch. When all but the flute had faded away into silence, the chime once again rang a low note. The chime’s pitch alternated between high and low throughout the piece, providing a measure of consistency until the very end, when the dissonance completely overwhelmed its clear but small sound and it disappeared altogether. Trumpets alone held out the piece’s last notes.

Opus Zero finished the concert with De Staat (1972-1976), a major work of the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. Inspired by text taken from Plato’s Republic, it encompasses a range of chaotic yet meticulously assembled parts. De Staat revolved around four vocal parts, sung by Chloe Blackshear ’10, Yanie Fecu ’10, Marni Jacobs ’12 and Katie Yosua ’11.  Their voices appeared briefly for a few minutes several times throughout the half hour work, echoing in unison, then in opposition. Rapid thrumming from the keyboard supported the voices throughout, both human and instrumental. About halfway into the piece, the music began surging into a race as the keyboard urged the strings, then woodwinds, then brass into adopting a faster and faster pace. A thematic pattern emerged – one of building tension among the individuals of the ensemble, then releasing bursts of energy. The work culminated with a battle for dominance between one half of the brass and the other, rushing towards dissonance but never quite matching each other until the end, when the two halves united to play the last, drawn out note as one. De Staat was without a doubt the most challenging work of the evening. In addition, all the ensemble members, with the exception of the vocalists, played the entire piece standing up. While Andriessen may have specified this direction in the score, physical exertion from performing a heavily demanding part while standing for 40 minutes noticeably tired the ensemble, whose energy decreased while the piece grew in intensity. However, Opus Zero pulled through admirably; De Staat proved to be the one of the richest works the band has ever performed.