Last spring, Gary Green, the director of the University of Miami’s Frost Wind Ensemble, retired after more than two decades on the Coral Gables campus. Green was a fervent advocate for contemporary music, commissioning and conducting many new and recent scores. It was obvious that he left big musical shoes to fill.
On Monday night a large audience turned out at UM Gusman Concert Hall for the debut of Robert Carnochan, his successor at Festival Miami.
Carnochan is an experienced wind ensemble director and educator, having previously held teaching positions in Oklahoma, Colorado and Texas. He chose a varied program of short works, a marked contrast to Green’s preference for large-scale wind scores.
The performances left a mixed impression. Carnochan is a technically accomplished conductor. His beat is clear and precise and he has a fine sense of dynamic variety. While he generally drew fine playing from the student musicians, there were also serious and repeated lapses in both the ensemble and solo work.
Frank Bencriscutto’s 1995 wind transcription of “Profanation,” the second movement of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No.1 (Jeremiah), was a brisk opener. The dance rhythms of West Side Story lurk behind the biblical frame of this 1942 score, and Carnochan led a reading that successfully captured its brash spirit.
Frank Ticheli has composed some masterful wind scores. His Songs of Love and Life combine a chamber band that includes harp and double bass, two guests from the string family, with settings of contemporary American poetry for the soprano soloist. Two songs from the cycle showcased Frost vocal professor Esther Jane Hardenbergh.
Ticheli’s often high arioso recalls the art songs of Ned Rorem. First Lessons (to a text by Phillip Booth) is American impressionism. The story of a daughter being taught to trust is cast in hazy harmonics with bits of melody peering through the instrumental maze. The lyrical Prayer for a Marriage sets Steve Scafidi’s witty paean in waltz and populist dance forms. Hardenbergh’s large soprano, rich vocal coloring and attention to textual subtleties fit Ticheli’s artful miniatures like a glove. Her clear upper register easily rode over the instrumental forces at full tilt. Carnochan was a worthy collaborator, bringing out the tinted solo wind and harp effects.
Many tuba players have probably wished more composers would write concertos for their instrument. The old proverb “watch what you wish for” certainly applies to the Tuba Concerto by Donald Grantham. Grantham, who studied with renowned pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, has crafted a test of the solo player’s speed, breath control and flexibility that few players dare try at their artistic peril.
UM professor Aaron Tindall easily slipped into the jazzy groove of the opening movement, playing at fierce clip, but also encompassed the long, dark melodic lines of the second movement. The big-band finale is a tribute to 1920s and ’30s jazz artist Tiny Parham, the players even singing a bluesy refrain. Tindall was nothing short of dazzling in a score that exploits the full range and agility of the tuba.
Kevin Puts was clearly under the spell of minimalism when he wrote Network in 1997. Repetitions of short thematic threads mark this busy and appealing overture, which was led with spirited vigor by Timothy Shade.
Paul Lavender’s arrangement of Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances From West Side Story exposed intonation problems in the ensemble’s flutes, and there were more than a few fluffs in the horn solo of Somewhere. The demands of Lavender’s scoring seemed a challenge for the players, and while Carnochan managed to hold everything together, his metronomic direction lacked an essential sense of theatricality.
Rolling Thunder by Henry Filmore had the spirit of a marching band but managed with more subtlety. With three trombones standing for the final refrain, the audience came to its feet as well.
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