February 22, 2008
Just a quick breather…
I’m home after two solid weeks on the road, having attended countless rehearsals and six performances of four different pieces in four cities in two states. I’ve been home since Sunday, but I’ve spent the week catching up on orders (everything is on the way, I promise!), catching up on emails, and most importantly, writing music. It’s been a while since I’ve written a new piece, and this one — the piece for Cheryl Floyd’s band at Hill Country Middle School in Austin — is hard work. I’ve never written for young band before, and it’s a real challenge. I have about 90 seconds completely done, and the whole piece will be a hair over five minutes total. It’s due in about four weeks, so I’ve canceled several trips I had planned to take in March. (No trip to Baylor, no trip to the CBDNA convention in Omaha, and Reno is up in the air.)
There’s one big trip I can’t cancel, and I’m leaving town one last time at the crack of dawn on Sunday morning. That trip will take me to the University of Georgia for a residency and performance of “Kingfishers Catch Fire” with the always-excellent John Lynch. From there, I fly to Kansas City for a performance of a fairly new piece, “Clocking,” with the University of Oklahoma Wind Ensemble, conducted by William Wakefield, at their regional CBDNA convention. After that, I fly back to the University of Georgia for a recording session of “Kingfishers Catch Fire” (on the Naxos label, no less! I’m in good company on that CD) before flying home Sunday night.
I’ll have to be sort of brief with the recap from the recent trip, but I did take a few pictures.
That picture is from a rehearsal at UT-Austin. I was there for nearly a week, working with Jerry Junkin, the legendary Harvey Pittel, and the UT Wind Ensemble on their premiere of my Concerto for Soprano Sax and Wind Ensemble.
The performance was great. Holy hell — that band is just insanely good. I think it’ll be a long time before I hear the accompaniment that crisp again. Harvey was a pleasure to work with — and he has the biggest sound I’ve ever heard out of a sax! I had worried that maybe I needed to re-score the first and last movements to fix the balance, but not so. There were places where I actually had to ask the entire band to play louder because I couldn’t hear them over Harvey. It was astonishing. The slow movement, I think, was the most beautiful I’ve ever heard it, with Harvey circular-breathing to hold the last note for an eternity. Bravo, Harvey — and as always, a sincere thanks to Jerry Junkin for that UT hospitality that nobody can top.
After the concert, we had a tasty dinner — one of several that week. Jerry’s wife, Stephanie, ordered the same dessert that I did, but hers was prettier (of course), so she let me take a picture of hers.
Can I just say how much I love Austin? Maybe my visits there have been a little unreasonably pleasant, but I have to say, if I ever leave LA, I may have to move to Austin.
That UT concert was on Sunday evening. Early the next morning, I flew to Dallas to work with the Poteet High School Wind Ensemble — the 2008 4A TMEA Honor Band. (That means they were judged to be the best 4A-size high school band in all of Texas this year. These guys don’t mess around.) I was there for a rehearsal and concert with Scott Coulson (Poteet’s Director of Bands) on “Strange Humors.”
The band sounded sick on “Strange Humors.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard it sound so good live. It was so damn good, their performance is now the reference recording of the work on this site. They performed the piece both in Dallas on Monday night, and again at their TMEA Honor Band concert in San Antonio on Friday night that week. Both performances were great.
Tuesday morning, I flew to Tucson, Arizona, home of the University of Arizona, to rehearse with Gregg Hanson (UA’s Director of Bands) and Timothy McAllister (UA’s sax professor — and among the greatest soprano sax players in the world) on my Sax Concerto. While waiting for rehearsal to start, I hung out in Dr. Hanson’s office. I don’t have a photo of Dr. Hanson, but I did take this photo of his portrait. I need a portrait.
Tim McAllister is… I don’t even know what to say about him. When I heard him play the first movement of the concerto with the band, I was speechless — and that’s just the little two-minute prelude. Good lord, you should hear what he did with the nearly-impossible second movement of the concerto. In fact, go ahead. I just posted it. (Either go to that page and click for the audio for “Felt,” or click this direct link to the streaming MP3.) You won’t believe his control. Every dynamic on the page is there, every alternate fingering request is met, every pitch bend is spot on and ends precisely back in tune. He somehow moves seamlessly from the most lyrical moments to the most aggressive honks. The concert on Sunday was simply stunning.
After two days rehearsing in Arizona, I flew back to Texas — this time to San Antonio, to attend the Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA) conference. In a definite sign that my career can only go downhill from here, I had the incredible fortune of having three performances at the convention — Poteet’s performance of “Strange Humors” (as I mentioned), as well as performances with two of the three TMEA All-State Bands. John Lynch was conducting “Turning” with the TMEA 4A Symphonic Band — and they were using my new Waterphone! (Yes, that really is my own Waterphone, a hand-made Richard Waters original. The knock-offs have nothing on the real thing. Anybody wants to rent this thing for a performance of “Turning,” you just shoot me a note…)
It was pretty sweet to hear “Turning” with a 150-piece band. If ever I’d written a piece that benefits from 15 trombones, this was it. (Actually, most of my pieces would benefit from 15 trombones.) Here I am with Maestro Lynch after the concert.
The 5A Symphonic Band was performing my still-new piece, “Kingfishers Catch Fire.” This group — the top all-state band in Texas, and I would feel safe saying it’s the best all-state band in the country — literally sight-read “Kingfishers” at tempo. The tempo of the second movement is quarter note=174. That’s crazy-fast — and they sight-read it that fast. Here is Thomas Lee, Director of Bands at UCLA — and the founder of the UT-Austin Wind Ensemble (now Junkin’s Group) — conducting the ensemble.
The band was one of the best bands I’ve ever heard — all the more impressive with their massive size. (How can this many people play together so cleanly?) I missed their final full rehearsal on my piece (I overslept that morning), but when I heard their last pre-concert run-through, I was literally brought to tears. If you tell anybody that, though, I will kick your ass.
This was one of those performances I’ll never forget. A funny little back story… As I’ve probably mentioned here before, the second movement of “Kingfishers Catch Fire” has 30 high C’s in the French horn part. The highest note on the French horn, in traditional view, is that high C. It’s a silly-high note to ask for once in a piece, so I asked for it 30 times. As a result, some horn teachers in Texas got a little “upset,” concerned that their students would blow their lips off preparing for the audition and the concert. Now, those 30 high C’s are all optional; every one of them is covered in an alternate trumpet part, but I have never had a horn player ask to be relieved of a single one of those high C’s. The Texas 5A Symphonic Band horn section was no different — well, except that they had even less trouble with those C’s than I’ve heard anywhere else.
Tom Lee is a great conductor, and he’s also somewhat of a bad ass, as I learned last week. The final bar of “Kingfishers Catch Fire” has the entire band play a big F major chord, and while they’re holding it, the French horn section — all in unison — plays one last unison rip up to their highest high C. Tom Lee, to make that last moment even more insane, asked the horn section — all 12 players — to stand up to play that last note, in clear view of the entire audience. Every last one of the players nailed that 30th high C, Tom held them on it for an impossibly long time while crescendoing, and when he gave the final cutoff, the crowd… well, they seemed like happy campers. Texas high school horn players are f’ing awesome. It was amazing. Bravo, Tom Lee: Official Bad-Ass.
It was an exhausting two weeks, but it was one of those trips that made me feel humbled and grateful for the incredible fortune I’ve had. The trip also made me hungry. Fortunately, in Texas, they have slices of carrot cake the size of a moose head. (Don’t worry; I think it’s dead.)
Thank you to Tom Lee and the 5A Symphonic Band, John Lynch and the 4A Symphonic Band, Scott Coulson and the Poteet Honor Band, Jerry Junkin and Harvey Pittel and the UT Wind Ensemble, and Gregg Hanson and Timothy McAllister and the UA Wind Ensemble. Life as a composer doesn’t get any better than that.