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San Francisco Wind Ensemble Opens “Colossal” Third Season

November 9, 2014

San Francisco Wind Ensemble


In the two-plus years since its inaugural concert, the San Francisco Wind Ensemble has realized many of its ambitious goals, and at last Saturday’s performance at Aragon High School in San Mateo – the second concert of its third season – the orchestra proved that it carries a musical gravitas and maturity far beyond its age.

As the performance … clearly demonstrated, the overall sound of the SFWE has developed considerably and become much more cohesive and substantial. Since its founding in 2012, the SFWE has dedicated itself to bringing high quality performances of original repertoire for symphonic wind ensemble to the Bay Area. With that, it has built a solid reputation as the first and only professional, symphonic wind orchestra on the West Coast.

This has led to a performance at last year’s California All-State Music Education Conference in Fresno, a CD to be released next spring, plus the invitation to be the opening ensemble at the World Association of Symphonic Bands and Ensembles (WASBE) conference in San Jose, in July 2015. (This weeklong conference showcases some of the finest bands and ensembles from around the world.)

Artistic director Martin Seggelke, who is currently part of the music faculty at the School of Music at Illinois State University, started the SFWE when he held a similar position at San Francisco State. He recruited around fifty leading professional musicians from all over the Bay Area to be a part of this new symphonic wind adventure. Seggelke has arranged with his new employer that he can keep directing the SFWE.

At the start of this concert season, the SFWE found a home as guest artist/ensemble-in-residence at Aragon High School in San Mateo, in a unique partnership with the AHS Wind Ensemble and its Music Director Troy Davis, who is one of the principal oboes in the SFWE.

The two ensembles perform in concert together, and the presence,even occasionally, of a professional wind ensemble at the high school campus and in the San Mateo community will no doubt create a useful kind of musical cross-fertilization. And the SFWE can now perform in a decent-sounding auditorium.

The AHS Wind Ensemble opened last Saturday’s concert with three original (and American) selections for band: Beguine for Band by Glenn Osser, Lassus Trombone by Henry Fillmore, and the opening movement of La Fiesta Mexicana by H. Owen Reed (who passed away in 2014 at the ripe old age of 103). Especially given that the Fiesta Mexicana is a tough nut to crack for a high school band, the AHS wind band did quite well.

The San Francisco Wind Ensemble followed with Vincent Persichetti’s Psalm, an arrangement of the art song “Allerseelen” by Richard Strauss, with soprano Esther Rayo, and the U.S. premiere of Spanish composer Ferrer Ferrán's, Symphony No. 4, “El Coloso.”

As the performance of Psalm clearly demonstrated, the overall sound of the SFWE has developed considerably and become much more cohesive and substantial. Among other things, the woodwinds and brass have found a happier balance, although the venue and the choice of repertoire definitely play a part in that. Technically speaking, the musicians seem to have no challenges, and their dedication to the symphonic wind band-cause is palpable.

“El Coloso” (The Giant) is Ferrán’s fourth symphony for symphonic band, named after a painting that is generally attributed to Spanish romantic painter Francisco Goya. Ferrán’s composition is a bleak, monumental, very intense work that occasionally assaults the senses with its bombastic outbursts. It consists of four movements that are played without interruption: Darkness, Sleep, The Flight, and The Giant.

The piece was commissioned in 2011 by the Spanish ‘Banda Sinfónica’ Santa Cecilia de Cullera from Valencia, an orchestra almost three times the size of the SFWE – a frightening idea, given the explosive nature of some of Ferrán’s music, which can also be very poetic and is generally very well orchestrated and clearly structured, even in the denser, violent passages.

“El Coloso” is a fascinating piece of music that may not appeal entirely at first hearing, but grows fast on you. I can totally see how this is a wonderful work to tackle and perform for the SFWE musicians. Even in the midst of all its madness, Seggelke conducted his ensemble with great calm and precision and he managed to keep the musical image clean and transparent.

I found the inclusion of the arrangement (by Albert Davis) of Richard Strauss’ “Allerseelen” on the program somewhat puzzling. Not that it didn’t work as a performance piece; soprano Esther Rayo has a lovely, almost mezzo voice and she sang her part with much expression and feeling for the text. But I cannot imagine that there isn’t an original composition for soprano and band that is equally suitable. And there are definitely more interesting Strauss compositions available for symphonic wind band.

Niels Swinkels is a freelance journalist, musicologist, sound engineer, and radio producer. Born and raised in the Netherlands, he studied English and Musicology at the University of Nijmegen. Before moving to San Francisco, he was the Arts Editor, and Senior Classical Music & Opera critic for Brabants Dagblad, a Dutch daily newspaper. In addition to writing for the Classical Voice and others, he is producer for KALW’s Open Air, a weekly radio magazine for the Bay Area performing arts. He is also a wine guy at Trader Joe’s Nob Hill. Read more about Niels at his website.