As the brass players and percussionists left the audience to an empty stage and the echoes of their “Fanfare for the Common Man” rang out through Goodrich Chapel, I was unsure of what lay ahead of me in the Symphonic Wind Ensemble concert. During their first piece, it seemed the ensemble had trouble hitting their notes. It was an odd choice for an introductory piece, too, since the first set was highlighted by percussion music and Albion College’s first-ever Samba Band.
My worry grew as the stage remained empty for an increasingly unsettling amount of time. What was going on? All I could think of were the seniors. Would this be the final concert the senior performers had hoped for? The crowd began to murmur. Suddenly, drums sounded. Everyone turned from the pews behind. The samba band began marching down, grooving two-by-two. Clad in white, with shining metal drums of various depths in hand or hanging at the hips, the group broke into a Brazilian samba – a batucada. They split off down the aisles to surround the audience, drumbeats reverberating across the room. Then, growing with intensity, they merged again to meet on stage for a wild performance.
It was the samba band’s electric, primal energy that truly kicked off the concert, sparked the tone for the rest of performance and set a clear example as to just how phenomenal the percussion ensemble performed. We were given a guided tour of emotions. The crescendos and decrescendos of “String Quartet in F-major” by Maurice Ravel mesmerized. The echoes of marimba and vibraphone haunted left the audience haunted with each note. We were then jolted immediately after by the sharp, sturdy intricate rhythms of a snare trio. We glided into a Beethoven waltz, only to jive into a funky groove later. Then we sat astounded at an incredible jazz improvisation by Sarah McDaniel, a graduating senior, on vibraphone for the song “Agua de Beber.”
Finally, it all arced back with the samba band again. As director Daniel McDonald tossed up his drumsticks, and the ensemble suddenly hushed as they hit the floor. I was reminded again of just how hair-raising the first set was.
Despite having just heard Albion College’s first Samba Band, as I sat back down after intermission for the second set of the concert, this time featuring the Symphonic Wind Ensemble, I assumed that the music selection would be entirely composed of classical selections. The first song, “Scenes from ‘The Louvre’” by Norman Dello Joio, had me convinced. It was beautifully executed, complete with an astounding clarinet solo by Grace Talaski, a junior from Caro, Mich.
However, as soon as I heard the spats of odd-and-end percussive instruments dotted here and there in the second song, “Blue Shades” by Frank Ticheli, I knew I had been fooled again. The song had the following intricate sounds of the city: sassy horn blasts, abrupt cutoffs and a hair-raising wailing clarinet solo. If blue shades could ever make music, it would sound exactly as the Symphonic Wind Ensemble’s performance.
While the build-ups and breaks of Ticheli’s “American Elegy” were like waves on the shore, and John Barnes Chance’s “Incantation and Dance” had the spirit of a Native American song, it was “Grand Serenade for an Awful Lot of Winds and Percussion” by PDQ Bach that took the cake.
I never laughed at a song before; not even Weird Al could get more than a smirk out of me. This song was the first to change this, and in every positive way possible. Squeals and shrieks coalesced with an over-the-top entrance. Kazoos and water gurgling intermingled with a minuet of mouthpieces. The trumpeters couldn’t help but sniffle and sob at the obnoxiously romantic third movement. Then slide whistles slid, trombones wailed and the tubist bounced in his seat as conductor and symphonic band director Sam McIlhagga, donning his autographed Red Wings jersey, shimmied and shook during the rousing finale.
As a cymbal crashed — literally, across the floor — and the song came to a magnificent close, my worries for that night’s performance were long gone. I felt sure the seniors could not have asked for a more thrilling final performance to be a part of.
Photo by Beau Brockett Jr.