THE IRONY IS not lost on me that a detailed breakdown of the Savannah Winds Ensemble takes my breath away.
The community concert band (in residency at AASU), which is made up of diverse group of volunteers —including high school and college students, amateur players and former and current professional musicians— may not enjoy the same level of buzz as some of the other traditional musical groups in town, but their size and scope are mightily impressive.
Get a load of what Principal Conductor and Musical Director Mark Johnson oversees for each of their performances:
“Ten flutes, three oboes, fifteen clarinets, three bass clarinets, two bassoons, five french horns, five saxophones, five euphoniums, four tubas, seven trombones, eight trumpets, and six pieces of percussion — including about anything you can think of: tympanies, bass drum, a trap set, mallets and cymbals. Whatever’s required.”
As someone relatively unfamiliar with the history of traditional wind ensembles, the first question which came to my mind was: why so many clarinets?
Johnson, who’s been at the helm of this 26-year-old institution for just over a decade, is happy to explain.
“It’s an issue of balance,” he says. “Clarinets in bands are similar to violins in an orchestra. Compared with other brass instruments, they’re not as loud, and don’t have the same ability to project. The basic philosophy that was settled on around 1940 was that for a band of this type, you need two to three clarinets for every trumpet. So we’re almost there! (laughs)”
Johnson says that the group, which plays a handful of shows each year and travels up to a few hours away from Savannah for public and private engagements, is —by virtue of its size and the variety of players involved— a gem of a band.
“We have what I would call incredible instrumentation for a volunteer community band,” he enthuses, adding, “There are many across Ga. —and the entire country for that matter— that don’t have the same balance of instruments that we have, so we feel very fortunate and a bit lucky.”
For the ensemble’s upcoming free show on River St., the group will offer an unusually varied program that reaches far beyond stereotypical brass band or wind ensemble fare. In fact, they’re playing everything from selections drawn from popular movie scores to classic marches composed by the great John Philip Sousa.
Says Johnson of this particular performance, “It features pieces most folks might not consider ‘band music’. There are transcriptions of orchestral works, brand new compositions written just for us, spirituals, marches, patriotic music and what we like to call ‘character pieces’. Those feature specific soloists within the group. It’s a wide array of music because it’s an outdoor concert, and we hope we’ll have something for every generation.”
So, with that in mind, I ask Johnson if there is any one particular piece he is most looking forward to conducting on the River. Much as I was initially flummoxed by learning his ensemble was larger than I had expected, it is now the Director’s turn to be slightly taken aback.
“That’s like asking which one of your children you like the best,” he laughs. “Goodness gracious, that’s a hard question. I think the piece everyone expects us to play very well would be Sousa’s ‘Stars and Stripes Forever.’ It’s written for —and best played by— a band such as this.”
“I understand the Waterfront Association will start up a big fireworks show just as we play this number, and I think everyone in the group and in the crowd can’t help but be touched by that combination. I mean, how often does a concert band get to have live fireworks go off while they’re playing what must be one of the most patriotic songs in their entire repertoire — and the one that was named America’s National March by an Act of Congress? That will be exciting for me.”
The Savannah Winds EnsembleWhere: River StreetWhen: 6 p.m., Fri., May 2Cost: Free Info: www.finearts.armstrong.edu/SWinds