By Frank Proto
Three Movements for Brass Choir and Percussion
For many years the University of Cincinnati was home to a very unusual radio station. It featured a diverse line up of programs, including classical, jazz, avant-garde, all sorts of international music, and an equally broad variety of news and informational fare. What distinguished it even more from its peers was that musicians were regularly invited to record full-length chamber music or jazz concerts, in any style, to be broadcast, not as fluff for the off hours, but in time periods that guaranteed a respectable number of listeners. Sadly, around the turn of the new century, the WGUC-FM - not to be confused with the current station that acquired the same call letters and frequency, a sort of classical Muzak service favored by some doctors, bookstores and up-scale car dealers - that many remember so fondly, expired.
The station also had a history for keeping up with the latest technical developments in both the broadcast and recording areas and in 1983, while still healthy and well-supported, was approached by National Public Radio to inaugurate a new international digital broadcast service. The plan was to use this new technology to broadcast a live concert from the U.S. to Sweden.
The University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music has always been among the premiere music schools in the U.S. and with an excellent sounding concert hall - Corbett Auditorium, where WGUC had installed direct recording lines - and a selection of first-class ensembles to choose from, NPR's choice was quite logical.
A one-hour concert was scheduled for the broadcast and the ensemble chosen for the affair was CCM's splendid Brass Choir conducted by Betty Glover. NPR thought that having a world premiere open the concert would be appropriate and I was asked to provide a three-minute fanfare for the grand event. Having never heard the Brass Choir before, I attended some rehearsals and was very impressed with both the musical and technical caliber of the group. At the time Betty and I were colleagues in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and seeing each other almost every day, we discussed this digital broadcast project constantly. Upon learning that the Brass Choir also included just about as much percussion as any composer would care to assemble in one place and a double bass, I began agitating for more time than the three minutes scheduled for my piece.
Usually when a new musical work is in the planning or talking about stage all timings, especially if it's to be played on a live concert, are approximate - ball park figures. However, since this was a broadcast where satellite time was being reserved and a whole slew of people on two continents had to work together, with absolute precision, we had to adhere to the time limitations religiously. There was absolutely no room for wiggle. 45 minutes of music meant 45 minutes and not 46 minutes! I took a look at the program and noticed that there were quite a few selections listed. This meant that there were many short pieces. 'Ah ha, an opening!' I thought. I mentioned to Betty that perhaps we could remove a couple of shorter pieces allowing the world premiere to be a bit longer. "Fine" she said, and we were now talking five to seven minutes. I went home and began composing.
Many times we have no idea of where the compositional process will take us. I became very excited about the project after hearing what this bunch of students could do and found myself progressing effortlessly. In less than two days, the first movement, which should have been it, was finished. I immediately began working on a second, finishing it in another couple days. I knew I was already way over my allotted time, but I thought; I'll deal with that later. Besides, I was enjoying myself immensely. I tore into a third movement and again finished quickly. I looked at what I had and after the first wave of being pleased with my work for the week wore off thought: 'Uh oh, what am I going to tell Betty?'
"What! How long!? Twennnntyyy minutes!!?" she responded after I gave her the news. "It's a radio broadcast for God's sake! We can't go over!" She was not happy. We let it simmer for a couple of days, then began perusing the program again. "Humm, we could take these off, cut that one . . ." Well, she made it work! Through some artful cutting and adjusting my twenty-minute world premiere would see the light of day!
Most proficient student musicians at a high-level conservatory love a musical challenge. Brass, and especially percussion players frequently find themselves immersed in music that is at the cutting edge - the avant-garde - as opposed to string players who are usually preoccupied with the basic repertoire and often develop aversions to music beyond the late romantic and early modern composers. There are some very traditional reasons for this. The sheer amount of music available to string players by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and the other great 18th and 19th century composers just doesn't exist for brass players and percussionists, so it's only logical that they have to go somewhere else to exercise their chops. Whether it is a good reason for avoiding newer music is debatable I suppose, but we'll save that discussion for another time. I might add that double bass players also inhabit the same musical situation as brass and percussionists in that the greats did not write (outside of the orchestra) for us either.
Challenges can come in different flavors. There's the straight technical challenge. That being the one that says to the player: "OK, let's see you play all of these notes, cleanly, in tune, with a beautiful sound." Lots of tough stuff here, involving dexterity, stamina, concentration and the like. Then there's the really demanding confrontation: The musical proposition. It's a bit like asking: "OK, you might be able to play all of those notes, but what is it you're trying to communicate to your audience? Are you getting through to them? Are you touching them?" Whose fault is it that the audience is not stimulated by a particular work, the composer or performer? Both? How many times have we heard an impressive rendering, at breakneck speed, a flurry of notes - higher, faster, louder - only to have an inner yawn, while being inspired to tears by the delivery of a simple melody?
Musical challenges are the toughest of all, but when issued at the same time with those of a technical nature the results are oftentimes unpredictable. So why do we (composers) habitually insist on issuing both at the same time? There are lots of possibilities to explore here, but just to touch on a couple: When we come across a special player who is not only exceedingly technically endowed but able to communicate at the highest levels with audiences we get so inspired that it becomes very easy to shoot the moon. We go for it! Sometimes a conductor (leader) might say to us something like: "This orchestra (band) of mine can play anything, just give a listen." And we listen and (sometimes) we think: "Wow, look at what I'm going to work with this month!" So when Betty Glover, conductor of the Brass Choir, said to me: "Wait 'till you hear these kids, they can do anything," the challenge to me was issued!
The music in the Three Movements resides in a style that while not classical, is not jazz either. Sometimes it is one or the other, sometimes it is both, and it is in these areas where the performers must be able to use their musical experiences to communicate coherently with their audience. Some would call this American music. I would tend to agree, since we, as a nation, being a huge melting pot, see not only music, but also other aspects of our differing societies constantly mixed together. Playing music like this convincingly usually requires somewhat of a cosmopolitan attitude by the performers. It's not enough to play the notes at the right time, in tune and with a beautiful sound. It's more like knowing whether that pianissimo passage is meant to whisper tenderly or hiss menacingly or when the huge climax should scream victoriously or frighteningly. The notes can never convey this message alone. Of course if we consider music as some form of communication, all of it should be approached from this perspective. However, it's the more unfamiliar pieces that stand the most to gain with this method, since like new acquaintances from different cultures, real understanding usually takes a little extra time and effort before mutual enjoyment is arrived at.
The Three Movements for Brass Choir and Percussion is dedicated to the memory of Norman Dinnerstein. Norman, born in 1937, was a composer-musician friend of mine. We both lived and frequently worked together in New York City in the 1960s. After I joined the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1966 we lost track of each other until one day in the mid 1970s, to my complete surprise, he showed up in Cincinnati, having just been appointed Dean of the College-Conservatory of Music. He died, at the age of 45 a few months before the premiere.