A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Feb 22, 2013
09:31 AM
Classically Speaking

The Most Successful Composer You Never Heard of Is Here

The Most Successful Composer You Never Heard of Is Here

OK, so I’m running the risk of becoming a “one-note” theme: It’s amazing how much goes on in the musical life of Madison…that so many of us don’t even see happening right in front of our eyes (and ears, of course). About a thousand or so will faithfully and happily attend the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra on Friday night, but on Saturday, many will miss the chance to hear a free concert by the UW Wind Ensemble. I can hear the yawns now: C’mon, it’s just a band, and not even the UW Marching Band at that. So…what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that Scott Teeple (pictured at left) will direct his group at Mills Hall in a work as challenging as any for professional wind players, giving the Wisconsin premiere of Steven Bryant’s 2010 “Concerto for Wind Ensemble.” OK, so Bucky isn’t likely to make an appearance, but Bryant may be the most successful composer of his type that few of us had heard of (I hadn’t either, until learning of this event just a few weeks ago).

Fortunately, Bryant arrived in town on Wednesday for a mini-residency, culminating in Saturday’s performance. He graciously sat down with me for a half hour on Thursday, and I feel like I was taken to school before he was off to guest-teach some classes.

Bryant grew up in North Little Rock, Arkansas ("not really much different from Little Rock proper" he explains), where his father was a band director, remained a performer and eventually concentrated more on expanding the band programs in town. This coincided with the 7th-grade Steven taking up alto sax. Does he still play? "Only a couple of times a year—and it usually involves beer!" He goes on to explain that his wife (currently a band director at Duke University), is from Austria, and "We’re fortunate to spend our summers there. Every town and village has their own band, so I sometimes sit in with them."

Bryant and his wife first met at the Chicago Midwest Band Clinic; eventually she moved to the U.S. to pursue graduate studies at Michigan State University, while he was at Bowling Green University. "She then went to the University of Texas–Austin—and I just kept following her."

UT–Austin is the link to the "Concerto for Wind Ensemble," as that institution premiered the piece in 2010. But it grew from what was first a single-movement commission from the Air Force Band. "The Air Force Band wanted me to write a five or six minute piece that featured some of their players—that’s where the 'concerto' idea came from—but as I wrote, I realized I wanted to write a much longer piece, and feature more than just a few soloists from the group. UT–Austin later headed up a consortium of 21 schools that commissioned the other four movements."

Bryant goes on to explain that "I used the concerto grosso idea (the use of small groups of soloists against the larger ensemble, best known from Bach’s "Brandenburg" Concertos). And I pulled the players out of the ensemble: groups of four on the left and right of the audience, and a group of three in the back of the hall. So you can’t really get the full experience of the work from a recording, only in a live performance."

There was a further personal link in the completion of the full version. "My dad sat in with the North Little Rock High School Jazz Band one night in 1996 or so, and played a free solo before the band played the actual number. I had a cassette tape of that, and transcribed it in 2007, when I was working on the original 'Concerto' commission. That solo became the basis for the third movement."

Bryant not only loves band sounds, but the seemingly endless potential of combining them with electronic sounds. His "Ecstatic Waters" for Band and Electronic Sounds has become that rarest of classical phenomena: a hit. "It’s been performed something like 170 times in the last four years—obviously far more than I expected! But I still felt there was more I wanted to explore with that combination, so next month I have the premiere of 'Solace' for Band and Electronic Sounds."

Next month is also the premiere of a brass quintet by the Gaudete Quintet in Chicago. As part of the celebration of composer John Corigliano’s 75th birthday, the Quintet commissioned five former students of Corigliano (Bryant studied with him at Juilliard).

But first there is the matter of "Concerto for Wind Ensemble." For more information about the work itself, you can visit stevenbryant.com. But you won’t really get more than a glimpse unless you’re in Mills Hall Saturday night at 8 p.m. If you have to, just pretend that a scoreboard is involved.

Photo courtesy of Scott Teeple.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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