Starting a symphonic wind orchestra, at a time when many orchestras, opera companies, and other classical-music organizations have folded, or are in straitened circumstances, may seem like a quixotic endeavor. But on Saturday, December 27, the Great Lakes Wind Symphony will make its debut at the nearly 2,000-seat theater at the Kodak Center for the Performing Arts, guided to Rochester by two Pennsylvanians: conductor Adam Brennan and business manager Ryan Pritchard.
Brennan and Pritchard are business partners whose association goes back to Pritchard's days as a student percussionist at Mansfield University, where Brennan is director of bands and a prolific, award-winning composer. Together the two men formed B&P Music Productions, a company that has focused on music publishing but is now branching into concert presentation with the Great Lakes Wind Symphony.
While professional symphony orchestras are not a rarity in the United States, there are fewer professional wind ensembles — one exception is the popular and much-recorded Dallas Wind Symphony. This struck Brennan as odd, considering the popularity of bands in America. Most locations have a town or community band, heard in parades and summer band concerts, so there is a "band culture" in the U.S.
Brennan himself leads his home town band in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, but in researching the ideal location for his group, he came to the conclusion that north-central Pennsylvania, where Mansfield University is located, did not have the population density or the widespread community interest in music that his endeavor required.
One area that did, however, was a couple of hundred miles to the northwest: Rochester. "There's a long history of great music in Rochester, and the city has always been known for its support of the arts," Brennan says. "There's a home for us here."
When Brennan and Pritchard were invited to a Rochester Association for Performing Arts event at the Kodak Center last year by their public relations manager, Bob Scott, they knew they'd found the right venue for their group. It was also the starting point for several busy months of business arrangements (RAPA is presenting the group's concerts at the theater), concert planning, and auditions for the ensemble, which attracted musicians from all over New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and from as far away as Texas.
The 44 instrumentalists who make up the Great Lakes Wind Symphony are career musicians — often music teachers or band directors themselves — with professional training. Brennan points out that there are many such musicians of all ages, but they often have few performing outlets. The Great Lakes Wind Symphony, he says, allows them to perform high-quality music at a level that makes good use of their training and musicianship.
When those musicians take the stage on Saturday they will have had two rehearsals plus a dress rehearsal earlier that day. Will they have an audience? Brennan and Pritchard think that with the number of area students taking instrumental music and playing in school bands, and the popular appeal of the symphony's programs, they will create something that a wide audience will want to see and hear.
"Seeing the Kodak Theater was the tipping point," Brennan says. "I didn't have an excuse for not doing it anymore. A dream of mine for 20 years became a reality in six months."
Just what is a Wind Symphony, anyway? The combination of wind, brass, and percussion instruments goes by many names: there's the concert band, wind band, symphonic band, and a very familiar term to Rochester audiences, the wind ensemble.
The choice of Rochester for the ensemble's debut points up the fact that the city is a focal point in the history of the wind ensemble, thanks to the Eastman Wind Ensemble and its founder and longtime director, Frederick Fennell (1914-2004). Fennell, who taught at Eastman for 30 years, conceived the idea of the wind ensemble, as opposed to the band.
To put it simply, a band can be any ensemble of wind, brass, and percussion in which multiple instruments play on a part. That's one reason why town and amateur bands can have 20 clarinets or flutes versus one oboe, or multiple drummers playing the same rhythms, or even 76 trombones.
Fennell's idea of the wind ensemble changed the model to resemble the winds, brass, and percussion found in a symphony orchestra, with single players on each part. This led to perhaps the biggest change in approach for musicians and conductors.
When you're a trombonist playing with 19 other trombonists, it's easy for any mistakes you make to get lost in the sound. When it's only you playing the first or second trombone part, you're completely exposed, and you'd better be good; as Brennan says, "In a wind ensemble, there's nowhere to hide. By creating this model, Fennell raised the level of music-making."
This more serious approach to the wind band led to a more serious repertoire. Fennell knew that audiences love Sousa marches and gave his audiences plenty of them (and so does any band director worth his salt). But he also rediscovered and promoted music for winds by such great composers as Mozart, Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg; commissioned and played works by many notable mid-century American composers; and popularized them further with many recordings and tours, including numerous trips to the Far East.
His students, and those of other notable college wind ensembles, did the same, and the tradition of supporting contemporary music has continued. For example, a consortium of more than 20 college wind ensembles recently commissioned a piece from André Previn, which premiered in October by the Eastman Wind Ensemble under its current director, Mark Davis Scatterday. Each of the commissioning ensembles will perform the piece, as well.
The Great Lakes Wind Symphony hopes to keep these trends alive, with a particular emphasis on American composers and music with an American spirit. Brennan calls this weekend's inaugural concert a "beta test" for the kinds of programs he'd like to present.
While Saturday's program will include holiday favorites like Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" and Alfred Reed's "Russian Christmas Music," it will also include a salute to America's troops and a new work called "No Finer Calling," dedicated to first responders. (Brennan adds that this piece is dedicated to Colonel Arnald Gabriel, a World War II veteran who directed the United States Air Force Band.) A barbershop quartet, drawn from the Chorus of the Genesee, will also perform.
The GLWS's February concert includes a certifiable American masterpiece, Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" (arranged by another venerated Eastman Wind Ensemble director, Donald Hunsberger). And Brennan wants future programs to include works for large-scale symphonies by such American composers as David Maslanka and Vittorio Giannini — substantial but rarely-heard staples of the wind ensemble repertoire.
In addition to serving as the business manager of the Great Lakes Wind Symphony, Ryan Pritchard is the group's principal timpanist. He admits he finds the prospect of selling as many seats as possible in the huge Kodak theater a daunting one — but then he recalls the ensemble's first rehearsal earlier this month under Brennan. This was the first time all 44 players had gathered together in one place to make music.
"It started out as the typical first-rehearsal situation, with everyone feeling everybody else out and wondering how we'd sound together," Pritchard says. "Then we settled down and played — and from that very first chord, I could tell this was going to be something special. We want to create great memories for our audiences."
Future Great Lakes Wind Symphony concerts are scheduled for February 7, June 6, and August 8.
Pianist Yuja Wang on Thursday and Saturday broke into Bartok and helped the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra reach new heights.