On Friday and Sunday, Josef Knott will lead the UA Summer Chorus and Orchestra in a concert marking the 200th anniversary of Franz Josef Haydn's oratorio The Seasons. As if a birthday party weren't festive enough, on Saturday Gregg Hanson will conduct the UA Wind Ensemble in a bon voyage concert, launching the group's first-ever European tour.
The 45-member Wind Ensemble is the only United States university band selected to perform in the prestigious World Association of Symphonic Bands and Ensembles Conference in Lucerne, Switzerland. In fact, the only other American group chosen to participate is a little outfit called the U.S. Marine Corps Band.
"We were chosen through blind, taped auditions," says Hanson, the UA's director of bands. The conference organizers invited bands from Europe, Australia and Asia as well. "I think they tried to create a geographic balance, but I don't know if there was a quota," says Hanson, unsure of why half the burden of U.S. representation has fallen to him. But he's not complaining.
As long as it's in the European neighborhood, the Wind Ensemble will also play--but not compete--at the World Music Contest on July 3 in Kerkrade, the Netherlands, moving on to a performance in Mullhouse, France on July 6 and a joint concert with a local band on July 7 in Winterthur, Switzerland. "And then the biggie is at the brand new, gorgeous Lucerne Concert Hall on July 10," Hanson says.
Some of the scenery will be alpine, but the music will be all-American. In fact, Hanson chose two substantial pieces related to the UA's own region: Robert Russell Bennett's Suite of Old American Dances, which Hanson says is based mainly on Western dances of the 1920s, and H. Owen Reed's folksong-inspired, three-movement symphony La Fiesta Mexicana.
The other principal work on the ensemble's music stands is David Maslanka's Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Wind Ensemble, which Hanson premiered here about 15 months ago. The tour will mark the work's first European performances, for which Hanson has again recruited Michigan State sax soloist Joseph Lullof.
Maslanka's music has been a mainstay of UA band programming during Hanson's tenure. "His music reaches to the very depths of everything we are as human beings; it's real heart and soul music," Hanson says. "It's very profound, with enormous contrasts; it's a real slice of human existence."
Hanson says Maslanka's music is very difficult to play, but he has no qualms about his ensemble's ability to make the best possible case for it. "We had a screened audition and picked all the best wind and percussion players for this tour," he says. "This is one of the finest ensembles that's ever come out of this school, and people shouldn't miss it."
People shouldn't have to miss it, even if they're drawn to the UA's other big event this weekend. The Summer Chorus' two performances won't overlap with the Wind Ensemble's.
Even though the work was first performed way back in 1801, Haydn's The Seasons seems never to have been heard live in Tucson, says Summer Chorus conductor Joe Knott, unless a community choir slipped it in at some point.
It's one of Haydn's last compositions. He'd already written a dozen or more Masses, several dozen string quartets, 104 symphonies and hundreds of other pieces. By 1801, the old man certainly knew what he was doing. If The Seasons isn't performed as often as you'd expect for a masterpiece, that has less to do with quality than with quantity: It's long, and some of the choruses pose a hefty challenge.
So to have a better chance of putting together a fine performance in only seven rehearsals, Knott has opted to offer only the warm seasons, the "Spring" and "Summer" sections. Joining the town-and-gown chorus and orchestra are UA music professors Grayson Hirst, tenor, and Charles Roe, baritone, plus graduate student Vanessa Salaz, a soprano who has just returned from her Carnegie Hall début.
UA forces have performed Haydn's prior oratorio, The Creation, a couple of times in the past 10 years, so The Seasons is a logical follow-up. Knott notes that the choral writing is strongly influenced by Handel (begetter of Messiah), and there are also some echoes of Mozart's Requiem. "It's not direct quotation," Knott says, "but more like charades--'sounds like.' But even with these borrowings, the piece is unmistakably Haydn.
"As in The Creation, the orchestra is a character in the drama. They're not oom-pahing; they have their own personality. As a conductor, you almost feel as if you have two pieces: The choral part can stand on its own, and if you take the chorus out, it's like you have a symphony in the orchestral part. You don't really feel that something is missing."
What is missing from this weekend's performance is half a musical year, and two seasons do not a full concert make. So Knott is opening the program with Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21, with soloist Christopher Cano. "Chris accompanies the Community Chorus, so I thought he deserved a reward," Knott says.
Knott settled on this concerto because he recalled the slow movement's use in the once-popular 1960s film Elvira Madigan. "To contrast with the Haydn, I was looking for something that was a little more subtle and atmospheric, something airy that can transport you with marvelous melodies," Knott says. "Then I vaguely remembered the dreamy feeling in Elvira Madigan, and I thought, 'That's my hook!'"