By Caldwell Titcomb
Three works by major composers made up the free concert presented by the Boston Conservatory Wind Ensemble on October 10 at the Midway Studios in South Boston. On the podium was Eric Hewitt, who holds a bachelor’s in saxophone performance and a master’s in conducting – both from the New England Conservatory – and currently chairs the Boston Conservatory’s woodwind department.
The opening piece was the much-loved “Royal Fireworks Music” by Handel, commissioned in 1748 to celebrate the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle that brought to an end the eight-year War of the Austrian Succession. The fireworks were not a success, but the music, coming late in the composer’s career, was rightfully a big hit (Beethoven near the end of his life, asserted that “Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived”).
Written for outdoor performance, the piece uses an unusually large number of instruments. On the present occasion the roster included 9 trumpets, 6 oboes, 5 horns, 3 bassoons and contrabassoon, 2 side drums, and 2 sets of timpani. As with most majestic Baroque music, the prevailing key is D-major.
Hewitt had the trumpets lined up at stage left and the horns at stage right, so that the antiphonal writing was spatially underlined in the slow-fast-slow-fast Overture. The Bourrée uses oboes and bassoons only. The “Peace” movement is a swaying siciliano, followed by a “Rejoicing” that is properly ebullient. The concluding Minuet (with a trio in D-minor) is no dainty dance, but a peroration of imposing grandeur. The student players lived up to the work’s stature as one of the supreme examples of musical celebration.
A relaxation came with Mozart’s Serenade in E-flat major (K. 375), written in 1782. This is a five-movement suite for pairs of oboes, clarinets, horns, and bassoons, supported by a contrabass at this performance. The result was graceful or perky as required.
After intermission we were treated to a relative rarity: Berlioz’s “Funeral and Triumphal Symphony, Op. 15 (1840), commissioned by the French government to mark the tenth anniversary of the July Revolution of 1830, whose victims were solemnly reinterred. This website on August 16 offered my review of this symphony as performed magnificently in London at the BBC Proms.
For the Boston rendition the floor was crowded with 70-odd players, including a percussion section of 7 side drums, cymbals, bass drum, timpani, and tamtam. The first movement is a powerful sonata-form Funeral March in F-minor, with welcome irregular phrasing and a superb long crescendo passage that we hear twice. There follows a Funeral Oration in which the “speaker” is a solo trombone, here except for a couple of slips on high notes laudably played by Dennis Smith.
The work ends with an Apotheosis in B-flat major. Berlioz provided the optional use of a chorus for the last section, set to a text by the composer’s friend Antony Deschamps (“Glory and triumph to these heroes….”). There was no chorus in the London performance. But here sixty singers from the Conservatory Chorale (prepared by William Cutter), placed in the left and right balconies, sang their hearts out (and from memory).
In this finale Berlioz added a part for the Turkish crescent or Jingling Johnny – a pole topped with metallic resonators. There was one in London, but here we got four – two players with one in each hand. They thumped away on the floor, and the result was thrilling both visually and aurally. Hosannas to all involved.
The next free concert by the Wind Ensemble will take place at the Midway Studios on Friday, December 11 at 8 p.m. Hewitt will conduct Stravinsky’s “Octet” and “Symphonies of Wind Instruments,” Kurt Weill’s 1924 concerto for violin and winds (with Markus Placci as soloist), and Hindemith’s 1951 “Symphony for Concert Band” in B-flat.