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December 2002 Nothing Can Match the Wonderful Sound of a Full Concert Band, By Harry Begian

It wasn’t the first time, nor will it be the last time, I suspect, that I shall hear complaints from fine professional musicians about the music fine wind ensembles choose to perform at concerts and the quality of the sound they produce. The most recent complaint was voiced by a highly-respected musician and friend who had walked out of a concert during the third frantic, high-intensity, very contemporary piece, one that seemed to be going nowhere musically. He said that after hearing so much of the same kind of ensemble sound and balance, as well as the same ultra-contemporary, wet-ink pieces, he lost interest and walked out. He asked me what has happened to the band sound and why conductors choose such unappealing music for concert programs, with piece after piece of the same musical period, style, and the same set of compositional techniques used over and over again. Good questions, these, and ones that have concerned me for quite some time. I first became enamored with large instrumental ensemble sound when I was a sixth grade student and at a children’s concert. Here was a large, superb musical ensemble that played with such pliability of sound, keen technical and dynamic control, and the musical agility to do anything that was asked of it. What a joy it was, and what a lasting impression the Detroit Symphony Orchestra made on me. From that day forward I heard them rehearse and perform many times.
    In the late 1930s, I attended a concert by the University of Michigan Band conducted by William Revelli and came away taken by the sound of this large ensemble. I believed that this was what a band could and should sound like. Here was a beautiful, sonorous, and well-balanced sound coming from a large group of woodwinds, brasses, and percussion – a sound that was pleasing to the ear. It was refined and capable of subtleties and expressivity I had thought possible only from an orchestra. The personnel list in the printed program was roughly as large as for a full symphony orchestra.
    The ratio of woodwinds to brass and percussion was roughly in the same proportion as strings to the winds and percussion in a symphony orchestra, approximately 60/40. The sound of the Michigan Band was naturally denser or heavier than the orchestral sound and depended at its core on a large clarinet section consisting of a full choir from sopranino (Eb) to the Eb contralto. This 60/40 woodwind/brass ratio and the full choir of clarinets enabled the band to cover the same dynamic range as a symphony orchestra, from a full, brilliant, and inoffensive fortissimo of brasses down to the softest and most delicate dynamics possible by the woodwinds. The most important quality of the sound was the wonderful balance and blend with the textural clarity. This refined, lush sound was so pliable and adaptable that the band could adjust to perform all types of music.
    The ability of William Revelli to evoke this type of band sound came from his skillful adaptation of the band instrumentation formulated and used by Albert Austin Harding at the University of Illinois in the early decades of the 20th century. There is no doubt that A.A. Harding’s influence on college and university band instrumentation, band literature, band popularity, and marching band was enormous. William Revelli and many others of his generation looked to A. A. Harding as a model of what was possible with a university band. Revelli balanced and molded the Harding instrumentation to fit the kind of sound he wanted. It was this instrumentation and sound to which I subscribed and to which I have adhered throughout my career, knowing that this kind of concert or symphonic band could faithfully do justice to thje performance of most all types of serious, classical music.
    With the advent of the wind ensemble 50 years ago, Frederick Fennell introduced to the band world the musical potentials of small band performances under a fine conductor leading a select group of instrumentalists. The early recordings of the Eastman Wind Ensemble display cohesive performances of very high quality. These performances were technically accurate, rhythmically precise, and had fine intonation. The wind ensemble concept was well received by a younger generation of band conductors, and by the 1970s this form of band became a part of the offerings at many colleges and universities.
    The high levels of musical performances attained by many wind ensembles were and are a credit to the calibre of the players and conductors. In my opinion, there are more well trained and knowledgeable band conductors now than ever before. Instrumental playing abilities have advanced so dramatically that the best bands and wind ensembles are able to competently play anything written for bands. With this in mind it is a harsh reality that audiences do not attend wind ensemble concerts in significant numbers. My assessment of why so few people attend current wind concerts and some leave early is that the basic sound and programming of even the finest wind ensembles in this country are unappealing.
    To my ears, most smaller bands and wind ensembles have a bright, brass-oriented sound that reminds me most of the army regimental and division bands with 28 to 56 players respectively. These brass-laden timbres are fine for the parade ground but lack the sonority and variety of tone colors for the concert hall. The simple fact is that two flutes, two oboes, and two
 clarinets do not effectively counter
 balance the sound of two trumpets,
 two horns, and two trombones.
    Some conductors, I’m pleased to note, have improved the general sonority of their ensembles by increasing the number of players, particularly the woodwinds, and have adjusted the balance of wind ensembles to produce a basic sound that is darker and has greater expressivity. Even with such improvements in the sound, many wind ensembles do not attract sizable or enthusiastic audiences because of the music they program.
    Band conductors have too often forgotten the reasons for giving a concert. I believe the purpose of concerts is to entertain an audience with good musical sounds on music of high quality that has been well prepared and skillfully performed. Audiences can relate to programs that include music of different musical periods with a variety of styles, moods, and tempos. Conductors should not pander to audiences by playing to their lower tastes, but neither should they select music that is too far beyond their acceptance or appreciation levels.
    To program one lengthy, modern work after another on a program is sure to bore and disappoint the audience, which has only limited patience for frantic metric shifts, an abyss of atonality, and crashing dynamic levels. No matter how well crafted such compositions may be or how well they are performed, they will disappoint and turn away audiences. When there are more people on stage than in the audience, it is past time to reconsider the programming. Conductors who program in this manner show no regard to audiences and probably are programming for their own satisfaction. Not many band and orchestra conductors will enjoy sitting through such a program, as has been proven at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic and elsewhere on many occasions.
    Certainly my concept of the best band sound and the proper balance and tonal characteristics of a concert or symphonic band were derived from indelible impressions I experienced at a very young age. Hearing the incredible beauty of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra when I was 12 and the warmth and sonority of the Michigan band when I was 16 in the late 1930s, their sound became the model and ideal to which I aspired. The secret of the Revelli sound, if I can call it that, was the 60/40 ratio of woodwinds to brasses, coupled with full clarinet choir instrumentation.
    I do find the so-called wind ensemble sound to be interesting and enjoyable when it is properly balanced, but I much prefer the sound, balance, and blend of the symphonic band as I have described it. It is, quite simply, more pleasing to my ears.
    I believe that there are two keys to good programming: high quality and variety. I advocate playing the best band music we can find, and it should cover the whole spectrum. Certainly we must grow and advance by playing good new music, but no one should create a concert out of works composed within the last year or two. I first conducted the Hindemith Symphony in Bb in 1952 with the Cass Technical High School Band in Detroit; it was a brand new piece. I am dating myself now, but this work was a significant accomplishment. I was daring not only myself and my players but testing the receptivity of the audience to a first-rate work by a top-notch composer. The concert on which we first played the work, included pieces of great variety and the Hindemith Symphony was very well received.
    I hope my conducting colleagues will give a great deal of thought
 and consideration to the audiences they play for. A pertinent question to ponder is what on a prospective concert the audience would
 care to hear even once and whether they will ever want to come 
back for another. In my lifetime, I have heard many fine bands that
 have given me great joy. I hope that every band director will try to
 capture some of that joy and share it with others in future concerts
 across the land.

Harry Begian is on the board of directors for The Instrumentalist and a director of the Midwest International Band and Orchestra Clinic. The 25 recordings he made with Cass Technical High School in Detroit from 1947 to 1964 are on file at he Library of Congress in the Harry Begian Collection. He went on to direct bands at Wayne State University, Michigan State University, and the University of Illinois; and he recorded more than 50 albums and 15 C.D.s with the University of Illinois Symphonic Band. He is a charter member of the American School Band Directors Association, and American Bandmasters Association, of which he is an honorary life member, and a member of the C.B.D.N.A.