Monday, December 12, 2016

Washed by the Music

One of the true joys of playing in musical ensembles of all sizes is the opportunity to sit in the midst of the group and have the music pass over, around, and through me. It is a far different experience from even sitting with headphones on or turning up the volume in the car while driving. This is live music. It moves with life as the sounds are RIGHT THERE! They aren't being focused by speakers or electronics. The music vibrates the air from all angles. It sets up all kinds of unique harmonics and tones, colors and moods because it is happening at that moment.

In our concert in November, the Rochester Community Band performed a couple of those incredible numbers that make life worth living. One of them, Alfred Reed's Russian Christmas Music is superb. It captures the old Russian Orthodox moods and builds them into a piece that moves the soul. At one point, in the midst of a particularly long section of rests, I found myself shivering in awe at the music. The only way I could describe it was that I was being washed by the music. What an incredible feeling.

According to Wikipedia, Reed was commissioned to write the piece for a concert in Colorado in 1944. The aim was to improve US-Soviet relations in the midst of World War II. It has become one of the most popular and most performed pieces of concert band literature. It was written in 16 days and first performed on December 12, 1944. Here is the Rochester Community Band's performance from last month. (See a breakdown of the piece, also from the Wikipedia article, below the video.)

Notes on the piece:
  1. The opening section, Carol of the Little Russian Children (mm. 1–31; approx. 3 minutes), is based on a 16th-century Russian Christmas carol. It is slow throughout; after a quiet opening by the chimes, contrabass clarinet, and string bass, the clarinets carry the melody. The other voices join in, and the section ends with a series of chords.
  2. The Antiphonal Chant (mm. 32–85; about 2 minutes) is faster and louder, with the melody initially carried by the trombones, horns, trumpets, and cornets. The woodwinds join in, and the music becomes more and more frenzied until the section ends with a massive cymbal and tam-tam crash.
  3. The Village Song (mm. 86–165; about 5 minutes) is much gentler by comparison; the Cor anglais has two solos, with soli in the flutes and a solo in the horns at the end of each. The piece enters a time signature of 6/4; the band plays a series of cantabile two-bar phrases back and forth between the woodwinds and brass, with the string bass playing long strings of eighth-notes, which are passed along to the bells. The song becomes quieter again, and the section ends with another English horn solo.
  4. The Cathedral Chorus (mm. 166–249; about 5 minutes) starts quietly, as the end of Village Song, but a crescendo in the trombones and percussion brings the rest of the band in majestically. The music builds to a climax, but then backs down for a final chorale in the woodwinds; the sound builds once again, and the piece concludes with a thundering chorale marked by liberal use of the chimes and tam-tam as well as soaring horn counterpoint.

A typical performance of Russian Christmas Music lasts 14–16 minutes. As it was written to convey the sounds of Eastern Orthodox liturgical music, which uses the human voice exclusively, the entire piece must be played with some lyrical and singing quality.

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