The Wind Music Of Dana Wilson
A brief survey
By Tim Reynish, November 2006
Working at Ithaca College in Spring 2006 was a great privilege, not only putting me in touch with the priceless heritage of the Conservatoire, stretching back through Walter Beeler to Patrick Conway, but also giving me valuable time with a number of great musicians, amongst them Dana Wilson.
Here is a listing of his largescale music for wind:
WORKS FOR WIND ENSEMBLE
- Avatar, The (2006) for Bassoon and chamber wind ensemble
- Black Nightshade (Concerto for Four Percussionists and Wind Symphony)(2004)
- Calling, Ever Calling, concerto for oboe (or soprano saxophone) & wind ens. (1990)
- Clarion Call, for brass and percussion (1988) Ludwig
- Concerto for Horn and wind ensemble (or orchestra) (1997)
- Colorado Peaks (2005) for large wind ensemble
- Concerto for Trumpet and wind symphony (Leader Lieder) (2002)
- Dance of the New World (1992) for large wind ensemble Ludwig
- Day Dreams (2006) for wind ensemble dedicated to Frank Battisti
- Evolution (1999) for large wind ensemble
- Harder they Fall, The for narrator and wind orchestra
- Io Rising, for brass quintet, percussion, and large wind ensemble (1993)
- Kah! (Out of Darkness) (1999) for wind
- Leader Lieder (see Concerto for Trumpet and wind symphony above)
- Liquid Ebony (2005) for clarinet and wind ensemble
- Liquid Gold (2005) for soprano saxophone and wind ensemble
- Piece of Mind (1987) Ludwig
- Remembrance (2005) for wind symphony
- Sang! (1994) Ludwig
- Shakata: Singing the World into Existence (1989) for wind ensemble, Ludwig
- Shortcut Home (1998) Boosey
- The Shifting Bands of Time (1997) Ludwig
- ...the harder they fall, for wind ensemble (2004)
- Time Cries, Hoping Otherwise, alto saxophone and wind ensemble (1991) Ludwig
- To Set the Darkness Echoing (2005) for large wind ensemble
- Uprising (1995) for large wind ensemble
- Vortex (1999) for winds, percussion, and piano, Boosey
- When I am gone away (2006) for wind ensemble
- Winds on the Steppes, for 16 winds, piano, and percussion (1991) Ludwig
For information about works not published by Ludwig or Boosey and Hawkes, contact Dana Wilson email Wilson@ithaca.edu
Website: Dana Wilson
Works for wind ensemble will usually work equally well for enlarged wind orchestra
WINDS ON THE STEPPES
It is more than fifteen years since I first heard music by Dana Wilson, at the BASBWE/WASBE Conference of 1991 in Manchester, when the late Stanley Hettinger and David Waybright brought their American Chamber Winds. David conducted two "world preview" works, Bud Udell's Cottonwood Pass, and Winds on the Steppes by Dana. I remember enjoying the work enormously, and I have played a cassette copy several times since and luckily it is now available on a Mark Custom recording MCD1203. Many of the fingerprints of his mature music can be found in this chamber work for 16 wind, percussion and piano, minimalism, freewheeling jazz riffs, static lyrical ideas erupting into punchy rhythmic ideas which in turn are replaced by dreamy quasi improvisatory passages for piano, horn... Dana has a great ear for sonorities, a feel for the innate lyricism of the wind and brass instruments, a punchy quirky humour, great energy and above all a sense of structure, so that no section or movement outstays its welcome.
In 2001 the CBDNA held their biennial conference in Denton. There was as usual a great deal of new music, much of it loud, exciting and brilliantly played, but often leaving no lasting impression. However I wrote about the concert by North Texas:
The most impressive work in this programme for me was Dana Wilson's Vortex (1999), a virtuoso work for piano and wind ensemble, well worth investigating.
Craig Kirchoff and I were unable to get Vortex programmed in a concert in WASBE Sweden, but we managed to get it platformed by Florida State in one of their repertoire session and it is now published in Craig's WINDependence series with Boosey and Hawkes.
Vortex is an invaluable addition to the scanty repertoire for solo piano and wind ensemble. Dana writes about it:
A vortex is a whirling mass, such as a tornado or whirlpool, created when a source of momentum causes a thick layer of unstable stratification to move with even stronger tangential velocity as the medium (air or water) converges into a smaller radius.The vortex gradually gains power and momentum while, ironically, forming a vacuum in its centre. It is this image of opposites - one influenced by the other - that was the genesis for Vortex.
In the same year I heard the premiere of his spectacular Trumpet Concerto, Leader Lieder, in the International Trumpet Guild Conference in Manchester. This was commissioned by the International Trumpet Guild and was premiered by James Thompson and the RNCM Wind Orchestra conducted by James Gourlay. Carefully constructed as all Dana's music is, the work is in a traditional three movement shape, a lyrical deeply felt slow movement in strong contrast with two of great energy, the first with more than a nod towards jazz traditions, the third beginning with a brief flirtation with minimalism, opening out into a fugato which is far from academic. In his programme notes, Dana writes:
Good leadership is in large part the art of leading us in a better direction while we have a sense that our own wishes are being fulfilled and our needs met. Particularly in times of crisis, we turn to our leaders to in spire us to act nobly and firmly, to direct our grieving, and respond to our needs.
This concerto is an exploration of those relationships, with the trumpet soloist in the role of leader. In the first movement, the trumpet takes charge of the ensemble "masses" and ends up via call and response directing them to action. The second movement reveals a leader amidst tragedy, and is a meditation on the grief and compassion that a leader must express for the group. The third movement begins with the trumpet's response to community fears and concerns, and works very gradually and arduously towards the leader's confluence with the body politic perhaps (since in reality this is rarely the case) revealing the concerto's unerring hope for better leaders and, in turn, a better world.
Gail Williams had commissioned a concerto which she premiered with the Syracuse Symphony in 1997, and in 2002 she premiered the wind version with the Ithaca College Wind Ensemble at Eastman's 50th Anniversary celebration of the wind ensemble. The work starts with a cadenza in which the main material is stated. The first movement grows from this, by turns dramatic and rhythmic, giving way to a glorious heartfelt lyrical slow movement and a finale of enormous energy. I wrote in a WASBE newsletter a review of the 2002 Eastman Wind Ensemble celebration conference:
Dana Wilson's Concerto for Horn and Wind Ensemble is a virtuoso work which exploits every facet of the horn but yet keeps in touch with the audience. It was given a terrific performance by Gail Williams who had premiered the orchestral version.
MUSIC FOR LESS EXPERIENCED BANDS
Like Adam Gorb, Wilson writes for all levels of ability from High School to the best professional groups, and like Gorb also he brings an energy, wit and lyricism to a repertoire overendowed with the first and often short on the second and third. I have a disc which includes an hour of his music at American Grade 4/4+ groups.
Shortcut Home is a terrific starter, a very strong minimalist score, and to my taste too short, a criticism that I very rarely make of minimalist music. Dance of the New World also has this restless energy, and here the ideas are given more space for development, resulting in a movement of nearly ten minutes with an atmospheric central section. To Set the Darkness Echoing begins as an introspective moody tone poem, erupting into a harsh exciting finale. WithSang! Wilson returns to that fruitful crossover between minimalism and jazz, with rhythmic vocalisations from the players, again a terrific tour de force. The drive and nervous energy of Dana's music is perfectly suited to percussion music, and his everinventive imagination prevents the percussive element becoming repetitive and boring; Black Nightshade is an excellent show piece for a good percussion quartet.
Of his most recent pieces, I have not heard Day Dreams, written in 2006 to celebrate the life and work of Frank Battisti, already receiving many performances nationwide, but I am conversant with two concertante works, both very useful pieces featuring instruments which are frequently neglected as soloists with wind ensemble.
TWO MORE CONCERTANTE WORKS FROM 2006
Liquid Ebony had been originally scored for clarinet and piano for the 2003 ClarFest at Salt Lake City, where it was premiered by Larry Coombs. In March 2006, West Point Military Academy held the first West Point Clarinet Summit, and for this Dana Wilson transcribed the work to include a wind orchestra accompaniment. Ever the practical musician, Wilson has also made a version for soprano saxophone and ensemble, retitled Liquid Gold; 13.46 minutes long, this is most certainly a major addition to the repertoire for both instruments. Again in the traditional three movement concerto form, the slow movement is one of the most beautiful lyrical pieces I have heard recently, while the finale is tremendous jazzy fun. Both versions should be in the repertoire of clarinettists worldwide.
The Avatar was premiered at Michigan State University 2006, and is scored for solo bassoon and small wind ensemble. To view a webcast of the premiere in a concert with Dana Wilson introducing the premiere, browse on the link: MSU Concert Band and Chamber Winds. This is a concert of April 27 2006, featuring compositions by Dana Wilson including the World Premiere ofThe Avatar, Concerto for Bassoon and Chamber Ensemble, with Michael Kroth as soloist, conducted by Wes Broadnax.
MUSIC OF DANA WILSON ON DISC
Perhaps the best introduction to the art of Dana Wilson can be found on the CD recording calledVORTEX, a Mark Custom CD by Ithaca College Wind Ensemble under its conductor, Stephen Peterson, on 4327MCD. Among the works seven works on this disc is the evocative concertante work for Alto Saxophone and Wind Ensemble, Time Cries, Hoping Otherwise, here played magically by Stephen Mauk. Also available for saxophone and piano and published by Ludwig Music, this is another of Dana's works which should be in the regular repertoire of soloists.
In a preface to the sleeve notes, Craig Kirchoff sums up Dana's musical personality:
This was a person possessing a gentle countenance, a quick intelligence, a quiet but penetrating intensity, and an uncommon depth and insight... As I listened to his diverse collection of wind music captured on this CD, every one of those facets of Dana's personality came to the fore. From the most introspective and personal statements of expression to the most penetrating and unyielding moments of intensity, often drawing upon rhythms and sonorities of cultures beyond our own, this is music that comes from the center of Dana Wilson's soul. The wind band world is a richer place because of the background, the insight and the creative process that Dana brings to the art of composition. This is not a composer who lives a solitary life in the comparatively isolated world of wind band composition.