American Wind Symphony returns to city in fine style
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With the majesty of a brig and the conjuring power of Brigadoon, the remarkable barge of the American Wind Symphony Orchestra returned to Pittsburgh Saturday night.
In a concert as surreal as they come, the ensemble's silver boat -- Point Counterpoint II -- docked at Point State Park. With a midsection that opened to reveal a stage complete with acoustic shell, the boat looked like an alien spaceship. But it was a familiar sight to many of the 300-some people who assembled on the Allegheny River side. While it has been 15 years since conductor Robert Boudreau last piloted the boat here, many in attendance had come to its concerts back when they happened frequently here, the city where he founded the group in 1957. Like the villagers in that mythical Scottish village, many acted as if only a day had passed since the Wind Symphony's last visit.
"It was wonderful then, and it's wonderful now," said a woman who sat near me. Another shouted "Too long!" after Mr. Boudreau said, "It's been nearly 20 years since we've been here."
A Juilliard-trained trumpeter, creative conductor and indefatigable entrepreneur, Mr. Boudreau came to Pittsburgh in the 1950s to teach at Duquesne University. But he soon found academia couldn't contain his restless and energetic soul. Something about the Three Rivers pulled at him, as if he had been a riverboat gambler in a previous life. But the idea that he formulated was to use waterways to bring music to towns with little means for large ensemble concerts. Mr. Boudreau grew up on a farm in Bellingham, Mass., and he understood the world on whose road art music travels less.
With the help of H.J. Heinz II and David Lawrence and others, Mr. Boudreau launched his first boat, a motorless barge, in 1957, and then the self-propelled Point Counterpoint II in 1976. Though he has a house in Mars, he is more often on the water.
From the beginning he has staffed the orchestra with young people willing to spend a summer on the rivers and seas (yes, he has taken the boat to other countries, from Cuba to Russia). This tour is no different, accompanied by a youthful group of about 40 international student musicians with plenty of chops to handle the difficulties of playing in the open air.
The experience of hearing and seeing this maritime marvel was almost one of disbelief at first. Somehow a piano, harp, timpani, percussion and full brass and woodwind sections fit on stage (although many were suspended on precarious, minimalist risers). Designed by the late architect Louis Kahn, the vessel could have been a UFO that landed. The setting was picturesque. The muted sounds of motorboats and the distant cheers of Pirates fans PNC park added to the hazy bluffs and the Gateway Clipper steamboats passing by.
Yet the music pulled it all together. Opening with a fanfare by Richard Strauss, and passing through Irish composer Patrick Zuk's vibrant Scherzo for Wind Orchestra (with two decidedly Latin sections) it made a somber stop in Adagio Appassionato by Latvian writer Rihards Dubra.
That thoughtful composition lead to an appearance by Dave Crawley. The KDKA personality read preposterous poetry about pickles for a suite of works written to honor the Heinz family. Lighthearted poems, including one by Pittsburgh's Sam Hazo, were accompanied by whimsical music by some big names, including Robert Russell Bennett and Shulamit Ran. After that, trombonist John Marcellus, performed "Colloquy" by William Goldstein. Turns out, this Eastman School of Music trombone professor got his start in the American Wind Symphony Orchestra years ago. He paid tribute to Mr. Boudreau with a smooth and clear timbre, as well as some odd "talking" through his instrument.
While much of the music was toe-tapping, the penultimate number was stirring. "Three Fragments Concerto" by Kaoru Wada, was a world music, crossover work that masterfully combined Japanese Taiko drums with the winds.
Somewhere during the evening, as the sun set behind the barge, Mr. Boudreau remarked that he would like to keep this musical "operation" going, but that he wasn't sure he would get the funding. Here's hoping that the Pittsburgh community finds a way to support this extraordinary boat that in one night connected to its old friends and impressed some newcomers, too.
First Published July 23, 2012 12:17 am