Pacific Delights, Davis Bores at Dual Concert

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"There's nothing like a band concert on a Friday night," exuded Dr. Eric Hammer at least twice during Friday's performance. Hammer, conductor of the University of the Pacific's Symphonic Wind Ensemble, was halfway correct. There's nothing like a good band concert, a distinction that Friday's concert clearly established.

Hammer's Symphonic Wind Ensemble, in their typical fashion, delivered an engaging performance that captured the audience with its power. In the style that has come to be expected of Hammer, the band played with passion, excitement and intensity, even during the slow or quiet portions of its pieces. In contrast, the guest ensemble, U.C. Davis Symphonic Band, played a technically correct and largely unexciting set.

The Davis Symphonic Band, under Peter Nowlen's direction, opened the concert with Shostakovich's Festive Overture. Even in transcription, Shostakovich's rich score possesses a transformative power, yet the Davis band played it entirely without energy. As the piece progressed, Nowlen drew occasional moments of conviction from the brass section, but none from the upper woodwinds. Tuning difficulties pervaded this entire performance, and the rendition seemed overly academic, without room for emotional expression. If the audience drew any enjoyment from this "festive" piece, it would have been from the exuberant percussion in the second half, which may have saved the piece.

The rest of Nowlen's set continued in the same way. A Tailleferre suite, Like the Noise at a Faire, was a bizarre combination of the Renaissance and atonal styles. Even with Nowlen's introduction of Tailleferre as a disciple of Satie, the players' lack of conviction made me question whether they were playing the right notes. (My old professor Dr. Tim Robblee used to say that when you're playing "weird" music, you need to play it with 100% conviction, or the audience will think you're just screwing up.) The third piece, Rachmaninoff's Cherubic Hymn, was clearly intended to be the slow, boring piece of the program, but even still, it seemed to stall like a subway sitting in a station for 10 minutes before pulling out.

Nowlen's final piece, Clifton Williams' Symphonic Dance No. 3, was the redemption of the U.C. Davis band. The players were juiced from Hammer's humorous gift presentation to Nowlen, and their laughter clearly energized the piece. I'm reminded of the West Wing episode when President Bartlet's wife cut off his tie 30 seconds before a debate, because she knew that he needed to have his blood running to succeed. The Davis Symphonic Band's blood was certainly running, because they powered through a  joyous performance of the dance, subtitled "Fiesta." The percussion section was dancing, and the woodwinds were (mostly) in tune, but most importantly, the piece was fun to listen to and fun to watch.

Then came the sunrise of the Pacific Symphonic Wind Ensemble. The players opened with a commanding performance for Graduate Assistant Conductor Brian Leff. In Maslanka's Mother Earth, which Leff later told me was about the destruction of our planet, the band started grandly, with conviction, and continued with a full, round sound. The band's intonation and balance were so perfect that I was left with the impression of a "bulging" sound trying to escape its constraints. Leff clearly rehearsed the band with zeal and strength, leading to a reverberating performance, and his conducting gestures belied his affection for the piece. The Pacific band started the concert with an explosion, and they didn't stop for a good 30 minutes.

Next on the program was Timothy Marr's Fantasia in G. Hammer, back on the podium, filled the piece with vibrancy, perfectly accenting all the piece's rhythms. Even the quiet sections were filled with energy. This piece's exuberance was neither pedantic nor ordinary, and the clear and powerful solos filled me with a warm happiness.

To Fly With Wings, a narrative by film composer Julie Giroux, was written to tell the story of humankind's journey toward flight. I don't know whether it accomplished that goal, instead portraying a fascinating combination of textures and sonorities, but the Pacific band played it up with remarkable showpersonship. The strong percussion and powerful low brass accentuated the piece's adventurous excitement, and the upper woodwinds were consistently in tune. (The band's intonation was phenomenal throughout its performance, and I mention this because listeners usually only notice bad intonation, when it distracts them from the performance. However, accurate intonation contributes to the vibrancy of a band's sound, and is frequently responsible for a band's "powerful" or "lively" demeanor, as was the case here.)

The program sagged a little with the Symphonic Wind Ensemble's next piece. Michael Colgrass is a well-known programmatic composer, and his Urban Requiem is built on the coolest concept I've heard in a long time. Colgrass, according to his program notes, represented the sounds of a disappearing urban environment using a saxophone quartet, paired with various solo instruments from the supporting wind ensemble. Even cooler, each solo saxophone has its own "neighborhood" of friendly instruments in the wind ensemble, opening up plenty of colorful opportunities. Unfortunately, Urban Requiem's 30-minute performance time may have been too long for its format. After about 10 minutes of pointillistic solos and duets, many over an incessant church-organ backing, I began to count the remaining minutes, as the audience grew fidgety.

Urban Requiem also had some balance issues, likely stemming from the guest soloists' lack of rehearsal time. In a duet between a flute and the alto sax, the flute was barely audible, and later a muted trumpet had trouble blending with a clarinet. An alto sax/oboe combination was successful, but by then the material had become overly repetitive. It's worth mentioning that the saxophone soloists were superb, and their stylistic technique and dynamic control were breathtaking. But the Urban Requiem failed to impress or engage me.

The Premiere Saxophone Quartet, Urban Requiem's guest soloists, then played a fun encore. Their punchy, clean, and captivating performance of Gershwin's First Prelude was simply delightful, and showcased the virtuoso abilities of each of the saxophonists. It seems that the quartet's flashy performance skills were wasted on the Urban Requiem. (An "encore to the encore" confirmed it - the quartet played Bernstein's Overture to Candide with an ensemble of 15 saxophones. It was likely hastily prepared, and not entirely refined, but jolly and fun nonetheless. The last clarinet player sat giggling with a hand over her mouth, staring in disbelief, for the entire song.)

Except for the Urban Requiem, Pacific's pieces were captivating and full of life. In the end, you trust certain conductors to choose exciting pieces, and to perform them engagingly. Dr. Eric Hammer is one of those conductors, and his ensembles consistently give a unique character and energy to the pieces they play. Sadly, the U.C. Davis Symphonic Band could not do the same.

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