2009 March at John Mackey's Blog



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  • March 31, 2009

    CBDNA : Composers Bein’ Damn Nasty – Aye!

    Last week was huge. HUGE, I tell you! It was the week of the College Band Directors National Association convention, a party so rockin’ that they only hold it every two years, and this year it was right here in Austin, Texas. It’s a little weird attending a big convention where I live (driving home every night, rather than just taking an elevator up to my room, means the amount of alcohol consumption is greatly reduced), but it was nice sleeping in my own bed every night.

    The day before the convention started, I got some new camera equipment, including the Canon 5D Mark II and what has to be the nicest lens I’ve ever used — the Canon 85mm f/1.2 L II. This is a shot straight out of the camera (no processing) shot at f/1.2.

    But on to the convention! The whole thing ran Wednesday through Saturday, but let’s jump ahead to Friday, when the real fun got going. That’s when I finally got to rehearse with Kevin Sedatole and the Michigan State University Wind Symphony. I got there a few minutes early, and I got to watch some of the rehearsal of Carter Pann’s new piano concerto, with Carter as soloist. The guy is a freak of nature, as Steve Bryant put it. How many composers today can play piano like this?!

    The band also rehearsed William Bolcom’s new First Symphony for Band. This is a great piece, and one I’m sure to be hearing a lot over the next few years.

    Here, Bolcom gives notes (HA!) to Kevin Sedatole.

    After rehearsal, we all headed to The Salt Lick for some BBQ.

    It’s pretty tasty stuff. I’d never been. The place is about 40 minutes outside of Austin, but worth the drive. Well, unless you’re a vegetarian, in which case, you’re screwed. Hope you like beans.

    Towards the end of lunch, William Bolcom and his wife, Joan Morris, gave an impromptu (well, at Sedatole’s urging) performance of one of Bolcom’s country songs. I swear this actually happened. This was amazing. If only I’d figured out how to get the video feature on the 5D to work.

    I’d never met Bill or Joan before last week, and I LOVE them. What an amazing, lovely couple. And Bill’s symphony is wonderful. After the performance on Saturday, AEJ described his music as “authoritative and commanding.” I couldn’t agree more and I couldn’t put it any better. What AEJ said she meant is that his music feels platonic in a way that sounds like it can only be that way. Whether you like his choices or not, there is no hesitation from him, as he has no doubt about what he is trying to say, so it says to the listener that it can only be the way he has written it.
    Oh, and lunch ended with peach cobbler.

    But seriously, if you’re a vegetarian, The Salt Lick is not for you.

    Can I just tell you how much I love the new Keith Urban album? I’m a huge Keith Urban fan anyway, but one song on the new album, “Only You Can Love Me This Way,” is fantastic. I need to rip off his guitar hook. And then when the banjo comes in during the second verse… Awesome. I don’t have a picture of Keith Urban, but here’s a shot of Eric Whitacre on Friday night. They have similarly spectacular hair.

    Ah, yes. Friday night. The night of the UT Wind Ensemble performance. The program started with Strauss, then the CBDNA premiere of Steve Bryant’s masterpiece, “Ecstatic Waters.” I don’t know what to say about Steve’s piece, except that I felt, for about 24 hours after I heard it in that setting, that my career was over. Steve and I write very different music for sure, and there’s hopefully room for both of us here in BandLand, but I felt that night that while I write music that’s perfectly fine, Steve has written a piece that’s important. The audience response confirmed what we all knew was coming: Steve Bryant is now officially (and finally!) a friggin’ rock star.

    Next up on the program was John Adams’s piece, “Grand Pianola Music.” It was a great performance (as expected), but I really don’t like this piece. I think Adams is brilliant at pacing, but not at writing a tune. This piece, for me, has bad pacing and is far too long, and the tune in the third movement is cheeseball crap. I owe a lot of my sound to Adams, and I’ll give him a shout-out when it’s warranted (hello, Harmonielehre), but not for this one.
    The closer on the concert was “Mr. Tambourine Man : Seven Poems of Bob Dylan” by John Corigliano, in a spectacular new transcription by Verena Mösenbichler. Here, left to right, are John Corigliano, Verena, Steve Bryant’s mom, and Steve.

    In February, the CD of “Mr. Tambourine Man” (the orchestra version) won several Grammy awards — one for Best Contemporary Composition (for John Corigliano) and one for Best Vocal Performance for a soprano named Hila Plitman. Because this is the charmed world of The University of Texas and everything Jerry Junkin touches turns to gold, UT, of course, hired Hila as soprano soloist for the premiere of the band transcription. How many college bands perform with a Grammy-winning soprano?

    It goes without saying that Hila is incredible. And intense.

    The performance was incredible. I’ve never seen so many people cry at a band performance. This was one of those concerts that people will remember for a lifetime. It didn’t matter whether it was band or orchestra or whatever. It was just two hours of great music.

    Here are the big stars of the evening, Steve and Verena. Oh, and did I mention that they’re engaged? Holy friggin’ power couple.

    We had a fun house guest with us during the convention. None other than Dr. Seduction, composer extraordinaire Joel Puckett.

    There was a panel discussion on Saturday morning with John Corigliano and William Bolcom.

    Here, conductor Jerry Junkin chats with John Corigliano after the panel. How awesome is this new lens?!

    And here I am with John. It’s always good to see him. Can you believe he’s 71? Good lord. I’m pretty sure the key to aging this way is to not have children.

    The Michigan State performance was on Saturday night. Holy HELL, it was incredible. The whole concert — Copland, Carter Pann’s piano concerto, a fantastic new piece by Ricardo Lorenz called “El Muro” (with one of the best endings I’ve heard in a long time), the new Bolcom symphony… Awesome. The concert opened with the premiere of Asphalt Cocktail, and it was off the hook, balls-to-the-walls. Howard Gourwitz, who funded the commission, was there for the premiere, and he couldn’t have been kinder. He seemed pleased, which was good, as I’d hate for his reaction to have been “well, I’m never doing that again.” I think Frank Ticheli’s description of Asphalt Cocktail was my favorite: “It’s kind of like being a masochist going one round in the ring with Mike Tyson. In a flash you are beaten to a pulp and knocked cold with one final punch, but you actually enjoyed it, and even thank him afterwards.”
    It was intense, and I couldn’t sit still. I’ll post the recording as soon as I get it, but keep in mind that you’ll lose a lot on the recording — like the visual of the smashing of the trash can into the floor on back beats, and the visual of Kevin Sedatole rocking out on the podium, and the whole MSU percussion section grooving like I’ve never seen a percussion section groove.

    A big, heartfelt thanks to Kevin, Howard, and the entire Michigan State University Wind Symphony for one of the performance highlights of my career. You guys rocked. Oh, and I’m told that the entire band signed the (now nearly destroyed) trash can and presented it to Howard Gourwitz as a souvenir. Howard said he’d put it in his trophy case.


    March 30, 2009

    Tuesday – I promise!

    I’ve been swamped so I haven’t really blogged, but there’s an entry coming on Tuesday, I assure you. LOTS to write about, like the premiere of Asphalt Cocktail, lunch with William Bolcom, dinner with John Corigliano, some of the incredible performances during the CBDNA convention, and a whole mess of new camera gear! So, really and truly – stay tuned. I’ll be back in the mornin’…


    March 27, 2009

    Asphalt Cocktail premiere

    The premiere of Asphalt Cocktail, with the Michigan State Wind Symphony, under the direction of Kevin Sedatole, is this Saturday, March 28, at 8pm CST in Bates Recital Hall at the University of Texas at Austin.  Asphalt Cocktail is the opener on their concert, which is the final concert of the CBDNA 2009 convention.  Tickets are free, and if you’re in the Austin area, I hope you’ll try to make it.  It should be a great concert.

    The concert will also be webcast, so if you aren’t in town, you can listen via the link that will be on this page.


    March 22, 2009

    Forum at UT

    If you happen to be in Austin tomorrow (Monday) afternoon with nothing to do, feel free to come by the composer forum I’m presenting at UT Austin.  The forum is at 4pm in room 2.634.


    March 20, 2009


    A few weeks ago, I drove to Texas A&M University — in College Station, Texas — for the annual American Bandmasters Association convention.  Although the ABA convention is, to put it lightly, a bit of a “members only” affair (and I don’t mean 80s nylon jackets), I had a few pieces on programs one evening, and I’m driving distance from there, so I headed over for the concerts.

    Well, to backtrack a little, first I drove to Brenham, Texas, home of Blue Bell Creameries. It’s a small town in east Texas where my non-4-wheel-drive Prius was major novelty.  There, in a town of 13,000, was Brenham High School, a school with a nice auditorium that I’d swear could have seated more than half the town. Brenham High School was the host for the Texas Christian University Wind Symphony. The band was performing at ABA the next night, but on that Wednesday evening, the Brenham High School band hosted them for a pre-ABA tour performance. I was there because Joe Eckert, the sax teacher at TCU, was performing the final movement of my Soprano Sax Concerto on the program. The program also included a new piece called “Angels in the Architecture,” by King of Band, Frank Ticheli, seen here next to composer Christopher Tucker. (TCU was also performing a very nice piece by Chris, “Gabrieli’s Trumpet.”)

    Here, Frank makes a few suggestions to the conductor, Bobby Francis.

    Frank’s piece is big with some stunning visceral moments (and I’m all about visceral music). Sometimes it takes a big gesture to make a point. This one was so big, my camera had no idea what to make of it — but the band did.

    After rehearsal, we had fajitas, courtesy of the Brenham High School Band. Is it just me, or does the guacamole look like lips?   But what are they saying?

    The TCU performances that night and the next night at ABA were very, very good.  I thought Chris’s piece came off great, and Frank’s piece was extremely powerful.  I can’t wait to hear his piece again next week at CBDNA.

    On Thursday, the UT Wind Ensemble arrived in College Station. AEJ arrived with them. Yeah, she rode the band bus from Austin. That’s right. They even gave her lunch! I was pretty jealous.
    Upon arrival in College Station, one of the conducting students (but soon-to-be Director of Bands at Kennesaw State University), David Kehler, busted out his personal crotch lamps.

    The way ABA works is pretty unusual — in many ways, but specifically in this case, I’m talking about the conductors. On any given program, every piece on the concert except for one is conducted by a guest conductor — either an ABA member or a new inductee into the American Bandmasters Association. The TCU performance of my concerto was conducted (extremely well) by Eric Rombach-Kendall, Director of Bands at the University of New Mexico. Some of the UT guest conductors included…
    Paula Crider, retired from the University of Texas:

    … Kenneth Megan, commander of the United States Coast Guard Band:

    … William Moody of the University of South Carolina (who, for some inexplicable reason, reminds me in this photo of Dr. Eldon Tyrell) :

    … and Tom Caneva, Director of Bands at Ball State:

    The program also included Robert Carnochan (associate director of bands at UT), Robert Grechesky, and some guy named Jerry Junkin — but I unfortunately don’t have pictures of those guys.
    When the players weren’t on stage, they still worked very, very hard.

    Here’s a random shot of the UT percussionists. What’s going on back there?

    UT provided a pre-concert dinner, which featured not only chicken fried steak, but apple cobbler. Yum!

    The UT concert was great — sort of incredible, really. And their concert the next week at the Meyerson in Dallas was even better. More on that next…