The community concert band is something of a two-headed animal: concert bands perform the marches and popular songs that are central to community celebrations, but there’s also a rarer strain of the tradition that treats the band as a homegrown counterpart to the symphony orchestra, minus the strings. You can experience this second kind of band concert at a rare level of intensity when the Ann Arbor Concert Band appears at the Michigan Theater on January 19.
The concert had its genesis in a remarkable effort by the band’s conductor, James Nissen. An Ann Arbor native and U-M music school grad (bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate), Nissen devoted most of last summer to arranging the first movement of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, “Leningrad,” for concert band. The movement lasts twenty-seven minutes, three or four times as long as the band’s usual fare, and it inhabits a different world from Sousa and suites from Oklahoma! Unlike many composers, who fled the twentieth century’s grim realities, Shostakovich faithfully reflected them in his music. The “Leningrad” symphony seems to arise amidst the German bombardment of what is now St. Petersburg during World War II and the heroic Soviet resistance that helped turn the tide on the war’s eastern front. Indeed, a performance of the work was broadcast on loudspeakers across the besieged and starving city. Only later was Shostakovich quoted as saying that the Leningrad he had in mind was the one “that Stalin destroyed and Hitler merely finished off.”
It’s vast, violent, raw, and sometimes tragic stuff, and both the work’s popularity and its critical evaluation have fluctuated. Nissen is the first conductor to transfer it to the concert band medium. The band has scheduled twice its usual number of rehearsals to get ready, and its individual sections are getting together for rehearsals of their own.
Principal trumpeter Phillip Rhodes says that, since Nissen became conductor nine years ago, “the band’s musicianship has advanced tremendously.” Rhodes says he expects that his lips will be “all but falling off my face” by the concert’s end; fellow trumpeter John Janevic likens the rehearsals to “getting in shape to run a marathon; you need to prepare so that you don’t hit the wall at mile twenty-two.”
In another unusual choice for a concert band, the “Leningrad” will be part of an all-Shostakovich program. It also includes the Festive Overture, an arrangement of a prelude for piano, some folk dances, and another symphonic movement, the finale of the Symphony No. 5. The Eastman Wind Ensemble or one of the other top university bands might put on a concert like this, but for a community group its ambition is miles above the norm.