The woodwind, brass, and percussion sections of the Houston Symphony take center stage this weekend in a unique Bank of America POPS program spotlighting some of the greatest wind ensemble compositions of our time, including music of John Williams and Principal POPS Conductor Steven Reineke.
Each evocative work tells a story and invites listeners on a journey, whether into the world of a powerful wizard, mythical dragons, or even classic cartoons. Musical Storytellers: Winds of the Houston Symphony is scheduled for Friday through Sunday at Jones Hall.
For many, the programming will be reminiscent of a high school band or college wind ensemble - albeit of a much higher caliber. The Saturday concert also will honor the outstanding work of music educators in Houston and beyond with the annual Spec’s Charitable Foundation Salute to Educators Concert.
"I did a program with just the strings [earlier this season], so I had an idea to so something without the strings. This was the perfect spot because this weekend the Houston Symphony, it’s the annual salute to music educators. It’s a huge shoutout to the teachers who are out there doing things remotely and teaching their kids in a whole different way," Reineke said. "The salute to music educators gave me the idea that many of us in the orchestra played in wind ensembles in our high school and college days. There’s a great repertoire for wind ensembles out there."
He added, "This is a great chance to showcase all the incredible musicians who usually sit in the back of the orchestra that you don’t hear up close and personal. It’s one of the silver linings in COVID-19. I can only fit a certain number of musicians on stage. For this concert, there's just shy of 40 players. This type of programming also allows me the opportunity to pick repertoires I wouldn’t normally do."
The music Reineke ended up selecting is very cinematic, which Reineke said is how the concert title was developed. The hour-long Musical Storytellers program includes J. Stephenson's "American Fanfare;" J. De Meij's "Gandalf (The Wizard) from his Symphony No. 1 (The Lord of the Rings); J. Giroux's "The Speed of Heat;" O. Thomas' "Shout" from Come Sunday; J. Williams/P. Lavender's "A Hymn to New England;" J. Mackey's "Sheltering Sky;" and M. Markowski's "Famishius Fantasticus."
Also of note, Reineke's own composition, "Pilatus: Mountain of Dragons," is on the set list. It is a piece inspired by the idea of dragons in the mountains of Switzerland.
"The orchestra and management said I have to put one of my pieces on the program. I've written nearly two dozen pieces in the last 30 years that are played in schools and colleges all over. It was hard to narrow it down, but this a good, powerful piece and a top seller. It’s one of the best wind ensembles I’ve written," he said. "It’s a little soul baring [to present your own work], but if you’re proud of the work you’ve done, you hope it's received well. It’s a great thrill."
Thanks to the unique format of the presentation, the musicians will be allowed to play instruments not typically seen in a traditional symphony orchestra, like the euphonium. Phillip Freeman, who normally plays bass trombone with Houston Symphony, will switch - or double, as the musicians call it - to this rarely seen apparatus.
While doubling between a trombone (which slides to produces the proper pitches) to a euphonium (which uses valves) might seem difficult, for Freeman it's not too bad of an adjustment.
"They’re very different. The thing for me is that euphonium was my first instrument. I started playing it when I was 11 and switched to trombone about 10 years later," Freeman said.
Thanks to all the muscle memory he built in his teenage years, he estimates he'll need just more than one week to prep for the concert.
"For the doubles that I typically play, I need a minimum of eight days where I start feathering in the other instrument. Let’s say I do between three to four practice sessions a day. I’ll start introducing one per day where I will rehearse my euphonium. Then, starting a few days before the concert, I’m only playing the euphonium during my practice sessions," he said.
Freeman also doubles on the bass trumpet and the contra bass trombone, if needed.
With the absence of the string section, Freeman - as well as the other musicians - will be playing much more than in a typically concert.
"I will be busier in this concert. It’s a lot of playing. During a regular concert, we do come in to assist or punctuate other parts of what’s going on in the strings. We might have a little bit to play, and then we spend a lot of time counting rests. For this concert, I have a lot fewer rests. It’s playing quite a bit from beginning to end," he said.
Get that practice in, Freeman, because this program is power packed. All in all, this concert is shaping up to be a wonderful journey with the instruments usually found toward the back of the orchestra section, and it promises to be an hour filled with great music making.
Musical Storytellers: Winds of the Houston Symphony takes place at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. For information or tickets, call 713-224-7575 or visit houstonsymphony.org. Tickets are $29 - $99, or $20 for the livestream on Saturday.
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