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Wednesday, February 12,2014

‘Maximus’ takes Manhattan

MSU Wind Symphony brings explosive, contemporary piece to Carnegie

by Lawrence Cosentino
Carnegie Hall has a big weekend coming up. On Friday, Feb. 21, the Philadelphia Orchestra plays Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony; that Sunday, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax take the stage.

Big — and explosive. But on Saturday, the MSU Wind Symphony will provide the gunpowder by blasting New York composer John Corigliano’s massive 35-minute symphony, “Circus Maximus,” and two other works. It’s the first time an MSU ensemble will play Carnegie’s big hall.

“It’s been a four-year labor of love,” Director of Bands Kevin Sedatole said last week. “It’s hard to believe it’ll be over in two weeks.”

Last Thursday, Sedatole and his legions previewed the Carnegie concert by rattling the rafters at the Wharton Center. With a full performance under its belt, the ensemble will make two more stops — at Penn State on Wednesday and Roxbury High School in New Jersey on Feb. 20 — to get into peak gladiator form before hitting New York.

“I can’t wait to get on the road,” Sedatole said.

Carnegie is a hallowed house that hundreds of American music legends have consecrated, going back to John Philip Sousa and his band, but MSU’s ensemble isn’t playing it safe. “Circus Maximus” is a sonic juggernaut that compares the cruel entertainments of ancient Rome with mediasaturated America. At the Wharton Center Thursday, the musicians were deployed like troops in the back, front and wings of the auditorium. One movement, “Channel Surfing,” called for dozens of abrupt changes, executed as precisely and quickly as a click on a remote.

With its cartoon ditties, banal beats and bursts of drama, “Channel Surfing” drew laughs Thursday, but the humor is black, as Corigliano explained in a 2010 interview with City Pulse. “We watch a moment of a bomb blowing up 10 children and then we go to a toothpaste commercial, then a little puppy who’s caught in a well,” he said. “We all take it as entertainment, news broadcasts and everything.”

At Thursday’s concert, spasms of sonic overload were juxtaposed with frightening interludes where wolves (embodied by saxophones) seemed to howl in a bombed-out wasteland.

Sedatole said the music itself is compelling enough to engage his students, but the trip to Carnegie adds “another level.”

“It certainly adds a focus — not that we have a big problem with that,” he said.

The project began when Corigliano came to MSU in April 2010 to supervise a full-scale concert of his music involving over 300 MSU musicians, culminating in “Circus Maximus.”

At a post-concert reception, Sedatole asked Corigliano if he would entrust the MSU band with a 10th anniversary “Circus Maximus” blowout at Carnegie Hall four years hence.

Going to Carnegie had long been one of Sedatole’s most cherished goals for the ensemble. “They’re Midwestern kids, for the most part,” Sedatole said. “I want them to experience the hall, the city.”

Last month, he asked for a show of hands. Few members of the ensemble had been to New York, let alone Carnegie.

Saturday nights are hard to nail down at Carnegie, but MSU made the pitch, with President Lou Anna Simon’s support and Corigliano’s blessing, and the date was set.

Corigliano’s imprimatur carries a lot of weight, not only for his status as (arguably) the nation’s foremost classical composer. “He grew up near Carnegie Hall and knows everyone there,” Sedatole said. “His father was a principal in the New York Philharmonic when Carnegie was its home.”

It cost $60,000 to rent the big hall.

Private donors and university money are bankrolling the trip. Simon and her husband, Roy, donated their money and will go to the performance in New York.

“My goal was not just to do something for the College of Music or the band area, but to have a big event for the university,” Sedatole said.

By Feb. 6, with tickets selling between  $12.50 and $50, the first floor was almost full of MSU’s New York alumni, high school musicians from New Jersey and New York and assorted Corigliano nuts.

Sedatole first beheld Carnegie Hall while teaching at the University of Michigan in 1997.

“What has happened there historically has changed the fabric of American music,” he said. “The first time I walked in there was overwhelming.”

For the 100th anniversary of U of M’s band program, the symphony band toured the East Coast, ending the tour at Carnegie, with Sedatole conducting. He also led the University of Texas band at a Carnegie gig.

“Acoustically, it’s perfect,” he said. “It may be the best in the world, and it’s probably the best I’ve ever conducted in.”

And oh, the molecules of recycled air they will vibrate. Winston Churchill and Booker T. Washington lectured there. Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Mahler and Stravinsky conducted their own music. Enrico Caruso, Paul Robeson, Benny Goodman, Maria Callas, Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan and many other legends played there.

Sedatole was in the house when “Circus Maximus” premiered at a national college band directors’ conference, held in Carnegie Hall in 2004. The premiere was a watershed moment in the resurgence of the American wind ensemble.

Few new works have proved more conclusively that wind ensembles can tackle major pieces, including tricky ones that big-city symphony orchestras can’t master in time.

“When I write for an orchestra, they only rehearse two days before the performance, or one day,” Corigliano said during his MSU visit. “They’re basically sight reading.”

College wind ensembles, by contrast, rehearse for weeks.

“Difficult as it is, the students really learn it,” Corigliano said. “Very often the best performances I’ll get will be from the band, not the orchestra.”

Sedatole described the music in terms usually reserved for Michigan weather. “It’s a collage concert wrapped into one piece,” he said. “If you don’t like it, wait a minute. It will change.”

Many new works fade fast, but in the last 10 years, the critical stock of “Circus Maximus” has only risen.

“I think it’s even more important now than when it was written,” Sedatole said. “Overstimulation has multiplied by, oh, I don’t know how many times. I didn’t even have an iPhone 10 years ago.”

The symphony ends when a blank shotgun cartridge is fired into the hall from the stage. A decade ago, the explosive ending smacked of showmanship.

Thursday night, after all mass shootings the nation has endured since 2004, it sounded more like prescience.

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