47 (mostly) Blown Instruments

Pennsylvania Symphonic Winds, Philip Evans, director; Themes from the Titanic,  University & Whist Club, April 14, 2012, Review for WRTI, 90.1 fm

A new band wants attention. Pennsylvania Symphonic Winds, founded  four years ago by Briton Philip Evans, plays original  classics, marches, hymns, transcriptions, from Sousa to Vaughan-Williams. Evans, from Portsmouth, and her Majesty’s Royal Marines, is bandmaster at Valley Forge Military Academy. His chamber group  47 players, professional and amateur, is culled from older, larger groups like the Upper Darby Sousa Band, and the Chester County Concert Band.

Saturday night, I heard the Pennsylvania Symphonic Winds in ‘Themes from the Titanic,’ a program of light classics and nautical works at the University and Whist Club in Wilmington. The program, if not entirely successful, showcased the young group’s energy and their leader’s brio.  Die Fledermaus, the first transcription,  waltzed along nicely. The hymn, “Nearer My God to Thee,” came off the best, tender and flowing and with a  segue into Dixieland to stave off sentiment. Evans has a nice way of shaping a hymn tune and he packs a wallop with closes.

The feat now is to pull absolute precision from these instrumental families.  Henry J. Wood’s Fantasisa On British Sea Songs  and John Ansell’s Plymouth Hoe are rousing numbers with sufficient challenges. Things can get messy and sometimes did. A certain bluster invaded the playing despite the prevalence of some sensitive first chairs, including flute, trumpet and percussion. Also a lone string bass, who acts as mellifluous anchor.

During the energetic second half, there was prevalence of  sharp accents and loud volumes. Missing were dynamic range and finesse. The perils in  “Eternal Father, Strong to Save,” a fascinating navy hymn, were contrapuntal.

“At Kitty O’Shea’s, ” Johan de Meij’s arrangement of Irish jigs and reels, ended the tribute evening on a jaunty note. James Horner’s soundtrack for Titanic was also programmed. Understandable, perhaps, but gratuitous, though the transcription started well. Soon enough it became distracting to expect all those clarinets to pretend to be violins in music we knew wasn’t written for them. Quibbles aside, the Pennsylvania Symphonic Winds have promise.

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