September 27, 2010
Recording of “Harvest”
NOTE: RECORDING NOW OFFLINE. STUDIO RECORDING COMING NOVEMBER 2010.
Well, it doesn’t get much better than last night. (That’s what she said.)
Back in March, when Joe Alessi premiered “Harvest: Concerto for Trombone” with the West Point Band, I blogged about the concert, and I thought at the time, well, how could that ever be matched?! Let’s put the piece away, ’cause it’s done.
I, obviously, don’t intend to diminish the West Point performance in any way — that concert was insane — but in the six months since that performance (and recording session), Joe Alessi has gotten to know the piece even better, and when he arrived at UT for his first rehearsal two weeks ago, he had some ideas about things that would make the piece even more effective.
It all really came down to dynamic shape. As anybody who has performed my music knows, I tend to over-mark dynamics. That’s largely because, in my mind, dynamics say more about “energy level” than actual volume. If I mark something FFF, it doesn’t necessarily mean, “blast your chops off,” it means “this needs to be intense.” But writing everything on the computer, as I do, contributes further to less-than-artistic dynamic markings because computer samples generally sound better either really loud or really soft. (For samples that are really soft, check out the demo of “Hymn to a Blue Hour.”)
I’m aware, of course, that variation of dynamic intensity is much more interesting musically. I’m fine with loud stuff, but at some point, the piece needs to shut the hell up before getting loud again or it all just becomes a wash of noise. (Even “Asphalt Cocktail,” which is tremendously loud, has moments that are marked PPP, where nobody plays but a single harp. In that piece, those moments are intended almost as a joke — hey! I can hear the harp! — but it does make the power-chords that follow much more effective.) Something that’s important to keep in mind as a performer, though, is that even if the printed dynamic doesn’t change, you can shape the line dynamically. A phrase marked PP can still contain a large dynamic range and still be considered PP. Dynamics are not a set number, unless you’re MIDI, and if you’re going to play like MIDI, I’d rather just listen to MIDI.
But back to Alessi. The big thing he wanted to do was make dynamics more extreme in range, not by making the loud parts even louder, but by pulling back from sections that were marked as being loud, saving the biggest volume for the real arrivals. This is something that Jerry Junkin does intuitively while he’s conducting anyway, so the combination of Alessi with Junkin — and these incredible UT players — was inspiring to watch.
FFF generally stayed at FFF, but sometimes FF would become MF, PP would become PPPP. Even those FFF sections might start FFF, move gradually to MF, and back to FFF by the end of the phrase. With every change, Alessi would ask me in the rehearsal room if it was okay with me, which was an awfully courteous thing to do, but his (and Junkin’s) ideas were always the right choice. No notes or rhythms ever changed, and none of the changes really demand that the parts be revised, but they did go into my rehearsal score so I can try to reproduce these interpretive choices when I work with other ensembles.
I’d promoted the live webcast here and on Facebook. As many people learned, the combination of Joe Alessi and the UT Wind Ensemble last night managed to break the internets. It seems those UT servers can only handle so much, and this was beyond that. The servers crashed, and nobody heard any of the webcast until the servers were restarted in time for the second half.
No worries. I’ve (temporarily) posted the recording from last night’s concert, as it would have sounded had the stream not failed. Just visit the main page for the Trombone Concerto, then click “Score and Audio.” Alessi, Junkin, and the ensemble played the absolute hell out of this thing. This was, without exaggeration, arguably the best performance I’ve ever had.
Backstage, after the performance, Alessi asked me when he could play “Harvest” again, as if it were somehow up to me. Joe, if it were up to me, you’d be playing it again this afternoon, but nooooo, somebody had to go home to play with the New York Philharmonic this morning. Hmph.
Go check out the recording from last night’s performance — keeping in mind that not a single thing is edited. It’s astonishing. Thank you, Joe, Jerry, and everybody in the University of Texas Wind Ensemble.
NOTE: RECORDING WILL GO OFFLINE AT 11:59PM CST on SEPTEMBER 27.