At 32, conductor and composer Jayce Ogren already has an impressive list of accomplishments to his credit. In addition to his tenure as assistant conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra (2006-2009), Ogren has appeared with the BBC Symphony, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, and Los Angeles Philharmonic. February 9 marks his debut with the Juilliard Orchestra in a program of works for winds, brass, and percussion. (Ten days later, he will conduct New York City Opera’s presentation of Rufus Wainwright’s opera, Prima Donna, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.)
Wind ensembles, with their flexible instrumentation and rich repertoire, have long been a staple of high schools, universities, and some conservatories. Large-scale works like those on this program, are fairly unfamiliar here, however, as Juilliard does not have its own permanent wind ensemble. And though the modern concert band only coalesced around the turn of the 20th century, composers have long been drawn to ensembles without strings. Mozart, for instance, bequeathed us a collection of serenades for various combinations of winds, as did Beethoven, who also composed a number of marches for military bands.
But anyone hoping for a marching band will be disappointed in this case. “This is a program that explores the incredible diversity of music that was being written in the first half of the 20th century, ranging from Varèse and his exploration of extremely dissonant and aggressive kinds of sounds, to Richard Strauss, who was writing incredibly lush, tonal, Romantic music all the way into the 1940s,” Ogren said in a recent conversation with The Journal.
The first work on the program, Strauss’s Vienna Philharmonic Fanfare, was composed in 1924 for the orchestra’s inaugural ball, an event which has been held annually ever since to raise funds for the musicians’ pension fund. Each year, the ball opens with this short and majestic work, scored for brass alone.
Intégrales, by French composer Edgard Varèse, was written almost contemporaneously with the Fanfare. Completed in 1925, this 10-minute work for winds, brass, and percussion is a characteristic example of Varèse’s explorations in tone color and density of sound. Conceptually and acoustically groundbreaking at the time of its composition, this work has become a staple of the modernist repertoire.
Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments had its premiere in 1924 under the direction of Serge Koussevitzky. Stravinsky composed the work with himself in mind as the soloist and maintained exclusive rights for several years, performing it more than 40 times. At the time, scoring a concerto for an orchestra without strings was rather unconventional, a move Stravinsky explained thus in a program note: “The short, crisp dance character of the Toccata [the first movement], engendered by the percussion of the piano, led to the idea that a wind ensemble would suit the piano better than any other combination. In contrast to the percussiveness of the piano, the winds prolong the piano’s sound as well as providing the human element of respiration.” Approximately 20 minutes in length, the work is cast in Stravinsky’s neoclassical language and retains the three-movement structure typical of concertos of the Classical era.
The last work on the program is Strauss’s Sonatina No. 2 for 16 Winds, composed between 1944 and 1945. Subtitled “From a Happy Workshop,” this piece followed close on the heels of another sonatina for winds, which Strauss called “From the Workshop of an Invalid.” Though it was composed during the depths of the World War II, the sunny mood reflects the composer’s return to health after an illness. The work is in four movements and runs approximately 40 minutes.
Ogren, a horn player, is looking forward to the rehearsals and performance. “I grew up in school playing in wind bands, and this is all repertoire I have a soft spot in my heart for,” he said. “Each instrument has its own very distinct color, and the challenge with wind ensemble music is to really blend all of these colors when necessary, and at other moments to let those colors come to the surface,” he said. “Wind ensemble music has a certain density, so to find transparency but also to blend those sounds to get an organlike warmth is something we’ll definitely be spending a lot of time working on.”
Since he rarely gets the opportunity to work with conservatory orchestras, Ogren is very excited to have the extra rehearsal time afforded in an educational setting. “In great music there is a tremendous amount of detail, and so often there isn’t time” to explore it all, he said. “I’m looking forward with this wind ensemble repertoire to spending time on the articulations, to really getting the intonation wonderful, to really digging into the phrasing. It’s so difficult to get an ensemble to the point where all the musicians really know how the piece fits together, to really know how their parts relate to all the others. That’s a level of detail I can’t really get into with professional orchestras, but it’s something that at the conservatory level and with wind ensembles we can spend a lot of time with.”