Look who’s marching in

Times Staff Writer

One of the best-kept secrets in concert music is going to be revealed Sunday at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Blared, actually.

The 15 trumpeters who will surround the audience will do more than signal the opening of John (“The Red Violin”) Corigliano’s “Circus Maximus” in a concert featuring wind and brass ensembles from USC, CalArts and Cal State Northridge. They’ll announce that serious band music is ready to step out from a shadowy parallel universe and enter the mainstream.

Aside from maybe hearing something from the two dozen much-loved recordings made by conductor Frederick Fennell and the Eastman Wind Ensemble in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, many music fans who have gone to Disney or other famous concert halls have been able to spend their whole lives unaware of serious band music.


Part of the problem is that most performances are confined to schools, colleges and universities. Another is a vagueness about the name and the connotations it brings up.

“Say ‘band’ and it could be any one of half a dozen things -- jazz bands, marching bands, concert bands, concert-in-the-park bands,” says H. Robert Reynolds, who will conduct the USC Thornton Wind Ensemble in “Circus Maximus” on Sunday. “If you wanted to go to a serious, substantial program and found a marching band, you’d be disappointed. Likewise, if you wanted to go to hear a marching band and found a wind ensemble, you’d really be disappointed.”

Even “wind ensemble” isn’t a standard term.

“We have too many names floating around,” says University of Texas at Austin conductor Jerry Junkin, who commissioned the Corigliano piece. “Depending on who you’re talking to, a band may be referred to as a wind ensemble, a wind band, a wind orchestra, a wind symphony or even something else. They’re all bands.”

Whatever their name, many contemporary composers have fallen in love with them. In addition to Corigliano, the roster includes William Bolcom, John Harbison, Aaron Jay Kernis, Christopher Rouse, David Del Tredici, William Schuman, Gunther Schuller and Michael Colgrass.

But widen the focus and you get works by Holst, Berlioz, Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, even Mozart. Sunday’s concert will include works by Mendelssohn, Grainger, Bernstein and Nick Didkovksy.

“Most composers I know, you mention bands and their eyes light up,” says Corigliano. “Bands have got fabulous instruments that aren’t in orchestras, and actually you don’t miss the fact that the strings aren’t there because there’s so many other timbral resources.


“I might also add that bands commission works and pay higher fees than symphony orchestras. And the audiences come to hear new music because there’s no Beethoven, Brahms and Tchaikovsky band pieces. It’s a much healthier atmosphere for the composer because not only is music learned well and played better than an orchestra can play it, but there’s an eager, willing audience to listen to it.”

Corigliano wasn’t always that enthusiastic. Junkin pursued him for years before he agreed to write a piece.

“There were several reasons I was resistant,” he says. “One of the stupidest ones is that band scores have horrible transpositions, and some of them I didn’t know. So I was just intimidated when I looked at a band score.

“The main reason is that I thought I would have to write a piece that was simple -- that I couldn’t really do what I wanted to do.”

The turning point was a trip to Austin, where Corigliano heard Junkin conduct the difficult Tarantella movement from the composer’s First Symphony in a band arrangement made by a University of Texas graduate student.

“I was absolutely stunned, because they had no technical problems with the ranges, the rhythms or anything,” Corigliano says. “It just sounded like they played it all their lives. That’s when I knew I could really write anything for them.”


“Circus Maximus,” which takes its name from the Roman amphitheater used for chariot races and bloody gladiator contests, is meant to draw parallels between the decadence of Rome and our own time.

“There’s no question as far as I’m concerned that this is a picture of our time and a very frightening one, and I wanted to make it frightening because it is frightening,” Corigliano says. “This technology we’re experiencing, which is extraordinary, which I love -- at the same time we know there are technologies that are making weapons that can kill us with one suitcase. So we’re in this kind of schizophrenic world of elation and fear. It really is a scary time.”

The roughly 35-minute work unfolds in eight continuous, contrasting movements, including “Channel Surfing,” which satirizes short attention spans; two “Night Music” movements that contrast tranquillity in nature with agitated city life; and a “Circus Maximus” section in which a secondary band marches down the aisles.

It may be the loudest piece ever written.

“Well, there is a section where it’s so loud it’s hard to believe,” says Corigliano. “But it’s also got soft sections. Loud alone is not interesting to me. Loud is part of the alternates of the yin and yang of art. But if we stay in one of those, it gets pretty gruesome.”

Still, the composer ends the piece with a shotgun blast after a comforting “Prayer” section. It’s his way of saying that everything is not necessarily going to turn out all right for us in this age of mass entertainment.

“I insisted on a real gun, not a recording, because everyone has heard them on television and movies,” Corigliano says. “There is something really terrifying about a live shotgun. I shot one off once years ago in my country place to scare off Canadian geese. It was a terrifying sound. I remembered that sound. I said that’s how the piece is going to end.”




Wind & Brass Ensembles

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday

Price: $10 to $20

Contact: (323) 850-2000 or