This is their state championship. The place is packed with anxious fans, who most of the time hold their collective breath silently, hoping against critical mistakes. But instead of Stevens Point vs. Neenah, or La Crosse vs. Sun Prairie, these students are not playing against each other, but with each other. And this is not Camp Randall or the Kohl Center, but a Holy Grail site for these players nonetheless.
This is the Overture Center, and the stage is filled with the WSMA High School State Honors Orchestra. The house is full of music teachers and parents who really know what it took to get here — and one occasionally spots the vaguely bored younger sibling looking forward more to dinner on State St. at Tutto’s Pasta than to hearing Respighi’s “Fountains of Rome.”
Not all —maybe not even half — of the students on stage will pursue music as a major or a career, but this process is a pretty fair test of the big leagues. They apply in December, audition early the next year, and if selected from hundreds of applicants statewide, go to a four-day camp at UW-Green Bay in June. The conductor this year is Orcenith Smith, currently director of the DePauw Orchestras and Opera, and with plenty of national and international guest spots on his resume.
Likewise, the repertoire is major league stuff. The concert opened with Dvorak’s “Carnival Overture.” The opening tempo may have been a notch or two below what most professional orchestras do — but many of them also come close to careening off the tracks before the work’s breathless conclusion. The WSMA troops focused on the essentials: the brio and joy and pure life of the piece.
Maestro Smith then announced something not listed on the program, a percussion section improvisation titled “Caution: Percussionists at Work.” The five players didn’t look like they were working at anything, but rather romping through a catchy sequence of riffs punctuated by solos. Just before the last bars, they inserted a motif from the Dvorak just played — and many in the audience got it and enjoyed a timely chuckle.
Morton Gould’s “Elegy for String Orchestra” was a kind of postlude he composed after he had written the score for the 1978 tv series, Holocaust. Far less intense than Barber’s ubiquitous “Adagio for Strings,” it nevertheless gave the string section ample opportunity to display a strong sense of balance and blend.
The most ambitious work on the program was Respighi’s “Fountains of Rome,” the 1916 tone poem that launched the Italian to international fame. This is real watercolors in sound kind of stuff, and the subtlety and care of the strings in the opening movement was outdone only by the in-the-spotlight solos of the oboe and clarinet. In four movements played without pause, the orchestra responded strongly to the sweep and passion of the music, the brass section getting its sternest test, and rising to the collective challenge.
The closing composition was “The American Dream” from “Night Visions” of James Beckel. The principal trombonist of the Indianapolis Symphony, he was commissioned by that group in 1992 to write a work that sums up hope and hard work and what can be achieved in the U.S. With a brief quote from “For the Beauty of the Earth” in the beginning, the work revels in rambunctiousness with hints of Copland (who better to emulate as a reference to the American Dream in composition?).
The parents and teachers had been asked to stand before the concert in recognition; now all stood, and quickly, to acknowledge the efforts — and achievements — of the youthful but well-polished group.
But wait…there’s more. At intermission, I noticed I was seated next to Dave Heilman, retired band director from McFarland High School. He couldn’t help but reminisce, and it gave me a powerful perspective on the depth and tradition of this project. “Forty-three years ago I was in the first Honors Orchestra,” Dave said. “We played in what we called the ‘cow palace’ by the Ag buildings on campus — and it really was outdoor type material on the floor. The next year I was in the first Honors Band. I look around this Overture Hall, and it’s really something to think about what this program has done over the years.”
Following intermission, it was the Honor Band’s turn with Robert Szabo at the helm. With his Marine Corps background, it was not a huge surprise to see the program tilted decidedly toward marches and pageantry. What was a surprise was that there was nary a Sousa march in sight — and that the works displayed a great deal more musical variety than the printed program appeared to indicate.
The opener was E.E. Bagley’s “National Emblem March,” one of those works you think you don’t know…and the next thing you know you’re saying, “oh, that’s where that tune comes from.” The band’s playing was crisp, with a response to soft dynamics that is often ignored by more experienced groups.
Mark Camphouse’s 1985 “Tribute,” written to honor all American women who have served in the armed forces, lacked a modicum of coherence in its final section, but this marked the only stretch of the band’s performance where they struggled a bit to keep their collective heads above water.
The one classic band work came in the Calliet transcription of “Elsa’s Procession to the Cathedral” from Wagner’s “Lohengrin.” Without baton, Szabo elicited quasi-orchestral textures from a beautifully blended ensemble. The brass section, especially the trombones and tubas, reveled in their opportunities.
John Williams’ “Liberty Fanfare” was commissioned for the 1986 centennial of the great lady who bestrides New York’s harbor. A narration was added later, here performed by one of the section coaches, James Thaldorf. One cannot help but draw comparisons to Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait.” Williams’ version relies partly on quotes of John F. Kennedy, and does not reach the same definitive climax as Copland’s masterpiece (admittedly a high bar to aim for, especially with the great Lincoln texts). The band certainly was not at fault, though, delivering a convincing reading of the material they had to work with.
The “American Pageant” of Thomas Knox is a well-crafted pastiche, weaving motifs from songs such as “America,” “Dixie,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and others. Rowdy is not too strong, nor a perjorative adjective to describe the texture, and the kids seemed to relish the moment, realizing the piece with genuine gusto. The concert ended with Knox’ better-known “Armed Forces Medley,” and as is traditional, Szabo asked all audience members who had served to stand when their branch’s song was heard.
If anything, the audience rose to their feet even more quickly than they had for the orchestra. The students looked happily drained, as a winning team might after an epic title game. There was no scoreboard, but it was clear that Overture Hall was filled with winners.