The Tacoma Concert Band kicked off its 2018-19 season Oct. 13 with a sumptuous musical feast performed within the white and yellow innards of the Rialto Theater. The concert, which was titled “Pictures at an Exhibition,” marked not only the beginning of the band’s 37th year, but also the beginning of the reign of the band’s new conductor and music director Gerard Morris, who has taken the helm after the retirement of the band’s founder and long-term conductor Robert Musser (who was in the audience for this opening performance).
Morris was spry, brisk and lively in both his conduction of the band and in his remarks on each of the pieces of music that were played throughout the evening. Morris explained that he used the theme of friendship in his selection of the four works of music that were performed at this opening concert. “We need to cultivate relationships and friendships at this time,” said Morris of his reason for selecting music based on friendship.
The opening number, Richard Wagner’s “Homage March,” was written as a birthday present for King Ludwig, Wagner’s patron. Ludwig was, at the time, turning 19 years of age. The piece features big, oceanic upwellings of music punctuated by lighter moments, like spells of whirling flutes. It ends in a giant, splashy, sparkling finale.
Next came Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the “Enigma Variations,” which Elgar wrote for the various people in his life. The “Nimrod” piece was written for Elgar’s best friend. This is a haunting, gauzy composition in which layer after ephemeral layer of musical voices are added to one another to form something wonderfully atmospheric. As soon as the piece came to a close, one enthusiastic audience member shouted, “Beautiful!” The audience broke into enthusiastic applause.
One of the highlights of the evening came next, Richard Strauss’ “Concerto for Horn No. 1,” which Strauss wrote for his father. Strauss was all of 18 years of age when he penned this piece, which has become a favorite of French horn virtuosos. Stepping into that role was guest horn player Gail Williams, who strode onto the stage clad in a gown of purple, gray and blue iridescence that was arranged in layered slats of fabric. With a tried and true instrument, Williams sounded the noble horn and exhibited its versatility. There were rapid segments in which a phrase played on horn was taken up in echo by the rest of the band. The horn can be soft and contemplative or mournful – filled with longing. The piece also included some lovely pairings, as flutes with horn. The completion of the horn concerto brought a standing ovation for Williams.
After the intermission, the band played a half-hour long version of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” which was written as an homage to an artist friend of the composer. The piece consists of 10 mini-compositions linked together by a recurrent musical theme. Each of the sub-compositions is a musical interpretation of one of the paintings created by Mussorgsky’s dearly departed friend, Victor Hartmann. It was fun to follow along with the program as the band conjured up the musical essence of visual scenes. Rapid, high pitched music is used to depict things like children quarreling in a Parisian park or baby chicks scurrying about. There are broad, somber musical vistas for things like an ox cart lumbering across open fields (you can feel the vastness of “Mother Russia” in some of these musical landscapes). The impressions and moods are so varied that the music never drags. As with the first half of the concert, the second half ended with a standing ovation on the part of the audience, to which to band responded by a brief and jaunty encore.
The new season, and the helmsmanship of Morris as the new conductor, are off to a promising start. See the Tacoma Concert Band next at their Dec. 15 holiday concert, “Let is Snow,” which will see the band return to the newly renovated Pantages Theater.