Pacific Wind Ensemble

This is the story of how the Pacific Wind Ensemble came into being. It is taken directly from my LiveJournal site with no edits (I’m sure that will come later). I hope you enjoy this story!

It all began on a rainy Thursday afternoon. The date was February 13th, 1992. The place: the Creative Arts building, San Francisco State University. I was wandering about the practice rooms, looking for a open room, when I saw my friend Frank through the door window. He opened the door and I blurted out “I have an idea.” Thoughts and ideas had been stirring in my head for a while now. This of course is quite natural when you have an overactive mind. But now it was time to share them — and one in particular.

Orchestration Class
First, let me take you back approximately two years before that important date. I was taking an orchestration class with Dr. Roger Nixon, who was then the Composer-In-Residence at S.F. State. I had always maintained an interest in composing and arranging, even while a flute student in junior high. I had privately examined countless scores and studied as much as I was able before taking the class. I remember Dr. Nixon complimenting me on my arranging skills. He even said at one point, “you should be teaching this class.” That was the best recognition of my efforts that I could have hoped to hear.

The final project for the class involved arranging a composition from one medium to another. I chose to orchestrate the second and third movements from Persichetti’s Ninth Piano Sonata for wind ensemble. Not an easy task considering some of the pianistic effects found in the third movement. After working on this project for several months (including one horrid all-night session), I finally heard it rendered by the SFSU Wind Ensemble.

From that moment on, I was hooked on arranging. Between 1990 and 1992, I arranged three other compositions Simultaneously, I started to develop a curiosity about recording techniques, as well as a desire to record what I had already arranged. This is what lead me to the conversation I had with Frank on that fateful day.

A Recording Project?
I broached the subject of recording my arrangements with him almost as soon as I closed the practice room door. No pleasantries. No “nice to see you.” Just, “I have an idea.” He knew about my arrangements and was very supportive of the idea of recording them. Then we started thinking about the logistics. In addition to the recording equipment, we were going to need lots of musicians to do this! If we had to pay them, the cost would have been prohibitive. So, I stared thinking of ways to cut down the instrumentation; still no good — to expensive. And where would we record? Probably on campus. But how much would it cost? Lots of questions, to be sure. Eventually, we both realized, at our current income level, this recording project would never get off the ground.

I was about to leave the room completely defeated, when Frank said, “Hey, if you’re going to do this in the Summer, why not just start a regular band? There are lots of musicians here that won’t be that busy.” I thought to myself Well, I don’t really like the concept of a “band”, but something about this might work. I then said “We should try it, but model it after the Eastman Wind Ensemble. There are so many possibilities with the repertoire that just aren’t being done with our school-sponsored group.” This is where we started to disagree. He envisioned “a lot of musicians”,and only objected to arrangements of rap music. I was a bit more selective, and preferred a group of about 30-40 musicians. But at least we were committed to working with each other and excited about starting a new group, which, after some brainstorming, would be called the Pacific Wind Ensemble.

Getting Started
As soon as i was ready, I made an announcement in class about the formation of the ensemble. I was able to get people to sign up, but still came up short of the musicians I was going to need. I then mass mailed almost every college band director in the Bay Area. The letter stated, basically, that I was looking for musicians for a new wind ensemble. There was only one reply from the direct at Cal State University Hayward. He wanted to know more about me and what I was trying to do before referring any musicians my way. Fair enough. I then resorted to networking with other musicians and maintaining a contact list, which grew longer every day.

Meanwhile, Frank was busy investigating the possibility of using the university’s percussion instruments and contacting his network. This brought in some more musicians. Somewhere in all of this flurry of activity, we renamed the group the Pacific Wind Symphony. Somehow, it sounded better at the time. After four grueling months, we were ready to have our first rehearsal on Monday, June 15th, 1992.

First Rehearsals
I remember, quite vividly, walking to the Creative Arts building with a backpack fully loaded with sheet music. When I met Frank in the room, we immediately started arranging the chairs and stands. I had placed my introductory letter on each stand. It simply said that I was welcoming everyone to the group, what the repertoire would consist of, and that Frank and I were running the show. The rehearsal officially started at 7:00pm. By 7:10pm, there were about 10 musicians scattered throughout the room. I thought to myself where are the rest of them? By 7:15pm, I stopped waiting and started the rehearsal in earnest. The next two rehearsals were similar to the first: not enough musicians and me bumbling through the scores under-prepared.

This was my first experience as a conductor. I had taken a class in conducting and had zero experience otherwise. The repertoire that I had selected for the new group consisted of some 20th century band pieces and a few works for 8-13 wind instruments from the classical era. I was very particular in remaining faithful to the composer’s intentions. For instance, I insisted that we go back to the original, reduced instrumentation for “Toccata Marziale” by Ralph Vaughan Williams. This created some logistical issues with people moving in and out.

After the third rehearsal, it became clear to both Frank and I that most of the musicians who had signed up for the experience were simply not interested in the most the repertoire. I had no desire to try to convince them otherwise. So, after much soul-searching, I discarded the band repertoire, kept the chamber music pieces, and resumed rehearsals for a very different group than what had been imagined before.

Frank and I had come to the realization that we had to reorganize the ensemble as a smaller group. The concert band repertoire that had been selected (George Washington Bridge – William Schuman, Divertimento – Vincent Persichetti, Toccata Marziale – Ralph Vaughan Williams) had to go. So, on Monday, July 6th, 1992, we had our first rehearsal as the group we were destined to be.

I had selected the following repertoire to be performed on our debut concert:

  • Octet in F (Josef Haydn)
  • Petite Symphonie in Bb (Charles Gounod)
  • Serenade in Eb, Op. 7 (Richard Strauss)

In addition to these works, we would eventually premier two compositions:

  • An Introduction; composed in 1992 for the PWE by Peter Botian
  • Septet; composed in 1981 for an ensemble at William and Mary College by Jason Gibbs

A total of 16 musicians had been selected to perform on this concert:

  • 2 Flutes
  • 2 Oboes
  • 4 Clarinets (one doubling Bass Clarinet, one doubling Tenor Saxophone)
  • 3 Bassoons
  • 4 Horns
  • 1 Double Bass

Some of these musicians had attended the first rehearsal on June 15th and decided to stick around. Others came from various orchestras and colleges, intrigued by the idea of the group and what we were trying to do.

Anyway, the rehearsals were adventurous to say the least. We were performing (in ascending order): a sextet (wind quintet plus one clarinet), a septet, an octet, a nonet, and a 13-tet (not a real word, I know). To end the concert, I had arranged one of Bach’s fugues from “The Well-Tempered Clavier” for the entire group. All of this required some fancy logistics with people moving in and out of the rehearsal room at odd intervals.

Finally, a date was set for the debut concert: Monday, September 14th, 1992. Our last rehearsal was two weeks prior to that date. I was fairly confident with the Haydn, Gounod, Strauss, and Bach; less so with the Botian and Gibbs. This would become painfully obvious once I stepped on to the podium that fateful night.

The Debut Concert
I remember arriving at Knuth Hall around 6:30pm to set up the podium, chairs, and stands. I felt a tremendous rush of nervous energy run through my body. I was both excited and frightened. I had never conducted a group in public, except for the Foothill College Symphonic Wind Ensemble (and that was just a four minute march). The musicians slowly found their way to the backstage area. They all seemed to be at ease, like this was just another concert. I don’t remember if I gave them a pep-talk or not.

We finally took to the stage, bowed during the applause, and then tuned. I got up on the podium (rather noisily), looked at the musicians, and gave the downbeat for the Haydn Octet. So far, so good. Everyone actually played together. Sigh of relief. For the next 20 minutes of the Haydn, we alternately played brilliantly and unevenly. It was not the easiest piece to play, especially the principle oboe, clarinet, and horn parts. But there were some rather beautiful moments. The audience applauded. Next up: Peter Botian’s An Introduction. I introduced the piece to the audience, explaining that he had written it as an adjunct to his The Body Resilient (also written for the Pacific Wind Ensemble). What?!?! I flubbed it big time!! Where was my brain during all of this? Frank, my business partner, said, in a very serious tone, “you need to do that one again — he (the composer) deserves better.” I agreed and went back to do it again, with apologies to the audience and composer. Much better this time. I really enjoyed that piece. It was short, but very dark and intense. Next up: Petite Symphony by Gounod. Downbeat: OK. Intonation: getting better. Tempo: too fast (a recurring them in my conducting career). The flute soloist was a good friend of mine; we used to play duets all over the place.

After the intermission, we came back to the the Septet by Jason Gibbs. Another disaster! Did I have a short-circuit somewhere? The audience must have been thinking (in capital letters): WHAT IS GOING ON WITH TODD AND HIS WIND ENSEMBLE? Frank, again, said that I had better give it another try because the audience was getting “restless”. I could feel the blood draining from my face from the embarrassment. OK, another shot, I guess. This time we nailed it. Very interesting, episodic piece, which employs a standard wind quintet plus bass clarinet and tenor saxophone. Next up: the beautiful Serenade in Eb by Richard Strauss. Nice job, but nothing spectacular. Finally, my arrangement of Bach’s Fugue in Eb from “The Well-Tempered Clavier” for the entire group. Ironically, the best number in the show! Big, BIG applause at the end. We take our bows after, what is for us, a long concert. We all posed for a couple of photographs at the end. Across the hall, a reception had been organized with food and wine. I congratulated everyone and said “we need to do this again!”. As I walked home, all I could think was “we did it, Frank!”

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