Nougaty Goodness

by Dwight Newton

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A Breath of Fresh Air

by Dwight Newton

When you think of the latest cutting edge ensembles premiering new music compositions today, does your mind immediately lock onto Kentucky as the epicenter for new art? Probably not. But there is a quiet revolution happening in music right under our noses (or at least within earshot).

Since 1985 the Grawemeyer Awards at the University of Louisville have served as a virtual Nobel Prize for composition, with its recipients reading like a who’s who of 20th century master composers, and even including a scattering of relative unknowns. But this process honors a work already done and often doesn’t even result in a local performance of the winning work. (The winners are only required to present a lecture.)

An award is different from a commission. The Grawemeyer Award recognizes past (even recent past) achievement, where with a commission a composer is hired to produce new work, usually for a specific ensemble. There is risk here, but also opportunity in pushing the ensemble’s comfort level for the sake of creating something new. In any case, the piece is put on display and either it works or it doesn’t, but you’ve almost certainly learned something in the process. This is the essence of art, of creativity, and, especially in music, of collaboration.

So what’s happening here in Kentucky that’s so interesting? It’s coming from what many might consider an unlikely quarter: the UK Bands Program:  brasses, woodwinds, the jazz ensembles, and percussion. These folks come from a legacy of relative negligence and disdain (or at best a perception of quaintness) for their instruments and ensembles. Town bands became passé when radio brought professional entertainment into people’s living rooms. Only the terminally nerdy band geek these days actually likes to play, much less hear, another Sousa march. The more serious wind ensembles have plenty of répertoire (I admit it – I really like Percy Grainger), but historically, they have had to arrange works written for orchestra or piano to fit their ensembles.

It has especially been a struggle to find interesting solo music for the individual instruments like the euphonium, clarinet, bassoon, tuba, etc. There are very few musicians who can make a living as a wind or percussion soloist, and nearly all who do spend much of their time arranging works written for other instruments or commissioning new works. Playing new arrangements and new compositions is routine for band musicians – it is part of the job and always has been.

So it should come as no surprise that at any wind or percussion ensemble concert you go to, you are likely to hear something you’ve never heard before. The activities in is realm are part of the fundamental mission of UK’s band program. In the words of Director of Bands Cody Birdwell, “One of the more important aspects of research and creative work in the UK School of Music relates directly to collaborative opportunities with outstanding artists from throughout the United States and abroad.” Birdwell’s mention of research is key. Aside from relating directly to the University’s stated goal of becoming a top twenty research university, this approach to music in an academic setting is energizing, creative, and entirely appropriate.

The UK Symphony Orchestra plays an occasional contemporary work (loosely defined as anything written in the last 100 years), but their focus is on the great classics, in which they excel. Training in the classics is necessary of an orchestral player and provides the depth required to play anything else (e.g., last spring’s amazing Arlo Guthrie concert). Last year UK Opera was the first college opera company to perform the new production of The Little Prince by film composer Rachel Portman, but this year they are performing only the most popular, time-tested operas ever — a wonderful, but low-risk season. (The cost of mounting an opera production is such that risks must understandably be balanced with hits. The 2004 production of Monteverdi’s Il Coronatione di Poppea is an example of a marvelous experiment without much regard to popular appeal. I encourage Everett McCorvey and UK Opera to do the risky productions more often and I understand there are some interesting possibilities being developed for the future.)

What brought things home to me was last spring’s performance of a new concerto written by British jazz composer Mike Mower for alto saxophone and wind orchestra. The piece was the crowning jewel in a series of works for sax commissioned by UK’s Miles Osland and recently released on a CD titled Commission Impossible (Sea Breeze Records). The monumental work was premièred by Osland and the UK Wind Ensemble, who worked closely with the composer on the performance and recording. Miles is clearly a massively talented musician and teacher. But I was especially struck by the collaboration among Osland, the composer, and UK Wind Ensemble director Cody Birdwell and his ensemble.

I have always been a string man. I play strings, my father was a professional violist, my brother is a cellist. My last significant experience with winds was playing the clarinet (badly) in grade school. But I do enjoy the occasional concert by the Central Kentucky Concert Band as well as UK’s several ensembles. What the Osland/UKWE concert put into sharp focus for me was the fact that it’s the bands that are doing the really interesting new music. And not just occasionally, but all the time and as a core value of their purpose. UK doesn’t have or need a dedicated “new music ensemble” because new music is integral to all their work.


Lest you think the UK School of Music is rolling in money to spend on commissions, there are different ways of making these things happen. The Mower sax concerto and the other works on the Commission Impossible project were funded by a research grant from UK – a validation of music as research at UK. (What could be more analytical and experimental that creating a new work of music?) Other new works come from the phenomenally successful and profoundly cool idea of commissioning consortia. The SEC Band Directors Association, among others, regularly bands together (sorry) to commission works that are then premièred by all participating ensembles, sharing both the costs and the prestige. Sometimes a work is premièred simultaneously on the same evening by all ensembles, making them all officially “world premières.”

In the last two years, the UK Wind Ensemble performed the world premières of three major works:  Turbine by John Mackey, Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Wind Orchestra by Mike Mower, and Bob Mintzer’s Rhythm of the Americas. The UK Bands have also commissioned composers through consortium memberships which have led to new works including  Symphony No. 7, David’s Book, and Desert Roads by David Maslanka, Monologues by Joseph Turrin, Brooklyn Bridge by Michael Daugherty, and Symphony for Band by Jack Stamp. These are not household names, but among those who know this music, these are important works by important composers and are significant additions to the wind ensemble répertoire. Added to the new works routinely presented by the UK Jazz Ensemble and UK Percussion Ensemble, the university is a veritable breeding ground for new work.


You can get a fun sampler of UK bands at the annual University of Kentucky Band Spectacular, Sunday, November 19 at 2:00 PM in the Singletary Center for the Arts. This festive celebration features four outstanding ensembles from the UK School of Music, including the UK Wind Ensemble directed by John Cody Birdwell, the UK Jazz Ensemble directed by Miles Osland, the UK Steel Drum Band directed by James Campbell, and the wild and woolly Wildcat Marching Band directed by George R. Boulden, replete with cheerleaders. If you’ve never heard the WMB indoors rather than an open stadium, this is something not to be missed. (Think of it as the musical equivalent of monster trucks.) Tickets are a mere $5.

The UK Wind Ensemble will perform in a free concert November 20, also in the Singletary Center. The theme for this performance will be “American Masterpieces for Band” and features UK’s Mark Clodfelter as trumpet soloist in a piece for solo trumpet and winds: When Speaks the Signal Trumpet Tone (1999), by David Gillingham, a Professor of Music at Central Michigan University. (A mere ten days later, Professor Clodfelter appears as the soloist with the UK Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Nardolillo, in a performance of the Concerto in E-flat for Trumpet and Strings, by Johann Baptist Georg Neruda (ca.1707-ca.1780), a classic of the trumpet répertoire that Clodfelter performed in Russia last summer.) Also on the program are contemporary pieces by Joseph Schwantner and Frank Ticheli, as well as works by Morton Gould and Samuel Barber. This program promises to showcase the Wind Ensemble at its best.

Also in November, hear the UK Percussion Ensemble (Nov.5), UK Concert Band (Nov. 7), UK Jazz Lab Band (Nov. 9), UK Jazz Combos, directed by Raleigh Daley (Nov. 12), UK Saxophone Ensembles (Nov. 14) UK Symphony Band (November 21), UK Jazz Ensemble (Nov. 28). All of these events are free in the Singletary Center. For current information on any UK School of Music events, see:

-Dwight Newton is a musicologist and is the Marketing Coordinator for the UK School of Music. His web sites are at and