Even the most curmudgeonly among us has to admit Ann Arborites are insanely lucky when it comes to classical music. Not only do we have more classical music performances per capita than any other city in Michigan, but we have more better classical music performances per capita than, well, any other city imaginable. What other town our size can claim to have had the best orchestra in the world–the Berliner Philharmoniker–appear here one month and the best band in the land–the Eastman Wind Ensemble–perform on the same stage exactly one month later?
Two things make the Eastman Wind Ensemble the best. First, the EWE was the first to join winds, brass, and percussion for the purpose of playing band pieces (Sousa, for example), amazing transcriptions (Scheidt, say), and newly commissioned works (Schwantner, anyone?). Founded by Frederick Fennell in 1951 at Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, the EWE virtually created the standard band repertoire, and in the decades since, more than 20,000 bands have been founded in their sonic image in high schools, colleges, universities and music conservatories across the country.
But even the best of their aural offspring–the North Texas Wind Symphony from North Texas University–cannot match the Eastman. As Fennell passed the baton to Donald Hunsberger and Hunsberger in turn passed it to Mark Davis Scatterday, so the faculty and students of the Eastman School have passed on the secrets of their smooth tone and seamless ensemble, their polished technique and poised sense of rhythm, and almost sixty years later the EWE is still instantly recognizable as the super-virtuoso band Fennell founded.
Perhaps even more amazingly, its appearance at Hill Auditorium on December 17 will be the Eastman Wind Ensemble’s first in town. Heretofore, local band lovers had to get their fix with recordings–Fennell’s fabulous twenty-four for Mercury and Hunsberger’s superlative series for Sony. Who among us who’s experienced Fennell and the EWE wailing on Sousa’s “Solid Men to the Front” could ever forget it? And was anything ever so lovely as Wynton Marsalis’ ineffable trumpet floating serenely above Hunsberger and the EWE’s softly undulating sonorities in Copland’s Quiet City?
Hunsberger, now the EWE’s Conductor Emeritus, will be appearing for just one of five numbers at the December concert, his own transcription of Debussy’s Homage to Rameau. Three of the remaining pieces will be led by Scatterday: his arrangements of the rambunctious Tumbao from Roberto Sierra’s “La Salsa” Symphony and Andrea Gabrieli’s brilliant Aria della Battaglia as well as David Maslanka’s exuberant Wind Symphony no. 4. The fifth piece, Jeff Tyzik’s Riffs, features Eastman faculty member Michael Burritt beating and battering all manner of percussion instruments.