Band and ensemble display differences

It’s Saturday, Oct. 17. I am in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel at 8 p.m. Night has settled in, and the air is cold but still. A peaceful night, the calm before the storm, the darkest before the dawn. A perfectly delightful fall night.

Then you go inside and it hits you — the noise. They are tuning up, of course, but it almost sounds like a piece in itself. They come from all sides; left, right, center. Players are located on the second level in the wings and in the back, a dome of sound that you cannot escape and cannot leave, out of fear as much as respect.

This was the sensation of hearing the Lawrence University Symphonic Band and the Lawrence University Wind Ensemble playing that Saturday night. In six pieces ranging in time from the dawn of the 20th century to the end of the first decade of the 21st, one could feel the world restart. In fact, that was the very theme of the night: five pieces on the concept of resetting, plus one piece by Gustav Holst that tied it all together, simply for the fact that Holst was a pioneer of this particular type of arrangement.

The theme made sense: fall is the beginning of the new school year. Students return, teachers have left and arrived with new plans. Autumn leads to winter, which will cover the ground in snow, and the snow will melt to reveal flora in abundance. With this also being both groups’ first performance of the year, a concert themed around resets and new starts is a natural choice.

Alas, while the concept is sound, the execution was not. The first half of the concert, with the symphonic band taking the first three pieces, was hampered by orchestration that was far too large and overbearing, and conducting that can best be described as “present.” Crescendos that were meant to be beautiful instead became the sonic equivalent of a brick wall, drilling into the eardrums through sheer power rather than any nuance, as if volume alone were a virtue.

Things picked up, however, with the wind ensemble. Though there was a piano player and what appeared to be a vibraphone present, the smaller group, perhaps a third of the size of the former ensemble, was far more dynamic and engaging. Unlike their peers, they were allowed to breathe, and their conductor let emptiness inside his soundscape rather than an endless barrage of frequencies and textures. The closest the wind ensemble came to such indulgences was in the piece by Holst.

Earlier, I wrote that Holst was sort of the pioneer of this kind of ensemble, and it is true. With his “First Suite in E Flat,” the final piece performed that evening, one gets less the experience of music being performed than the birth of a way of doing things. Looking around, across high schools and middle schools, at any school with a music program, we owe it to Holst writing these pieces; writing this piece; pioneering a form. It might have come if he had not done so, but it would not be the same. Listening to the suite, there is beauty, but also an enormous sense of gratitude. We should thank Holst, then, for what music he has made for us and what music he ensured would continue decades after.