Alfred Reed: Armenian Dances

performed by the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra under … someone, perhaps the composer. 

And now… for something completely different.

We went from a nine-week discussion of some quite heavy German(ic) music, to a brief discussion of some Eastern European music from a wonderful concert over a month ago, and now… to Armenia. And concert band. And about 12 years ago. Back to my high school concert band.
I don’t remember at what point or for what particular reason we were preparing this piece, but it was not just a spring concert or something. I want to say it was for some kind of competition or evaluation of some kind. And the piece was listed as grade six, the highest of any of the repertoire. Our ensemble generally played grade 5-6 pieces, and for some reason, this one was just…. so captivating.
Typical of a concert band piece, one that is programmed along with a few others for a performance of some kind, it’s just one movement, not a sprawling, multiple-movement piece like you’d have for a string orchestra or something, but it does have different sections. More correctly, this first part has five sections which together constitute the first movement of a four-movement suite, but I didn’t know that at the time, and this first movement is a perfectly strong standalone piece.
It’s stunningly gorgeous, with rich textures, lots of depth, beautiful expression, and a kind of blow-you-away scope of emotions and ‘scenes’ for only 11-12 minutes of music. In high school, aside from playing transcriptions of classical pieces, this was one of the first pieces that felt like real, serious music, and not just kitschy concert band funzy repertoire.
It was the first piece that kind of blew me away with depth and layer that I didn’t really notice until I really paid attention. During the time we were rehearsing it, the only lines I really
paid attention to when I listened were my own and the lines I could hear more clearly of people around me, usually in the bass. However, the more I paid attention, the more I heard a melody here, a counter-melody there, something really cool going on in flutes kind of in the background, a flutter from a clarinet or bassoon, or a really neat harmonic progression in the horns. It was like…. everything is important, everything had its place, and to strike that balance was very difficult. I just couldn’t believe what was contained in this piece. But remember, I was in high school and had absolutely zero formal musical training or exposure to classical music. And I was a saxophone player, so there’s that too.
Alfred Reed died the year I graduated high school. He was an extremely prolific composer, with over 200-something compositions to his name. He studied at Juilliard and earned degrees from Baylor University, and in his career acted not only as composer, but conductor, editor, and also professor of music at the University of Miami. He also traveled the world, with engagements on four continents and commissions that would have taken him to the age of 115 to complete (which would have been in  2036; he died at 84 years of age).
The Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra has recorded more professional albums of concert band repertoire than any other concert band on earth, with something like over 200 releases. They’re also considered (or were for some time) to be one of the best concert bands (if not the best) in the world, along with the Dallas Wind Symphony. As a high school performer, we were in absolute awe of their (the TKWO) recording of this piece, which is the one I’m most familiar with… it’s absolutely stunningly perfect in every detail. I love it, and it still kind of gives me chills. Let’s have a look at these five sections that make up the piece. Per Wikipedia, they are (with my comments below)

  1. Tzirani Tzar (The Apricot Tree) (mm. 1–29) (Broadly, and sustained), which opens the piece, begins with a short brass fanfare and runs in the woodwinds. This sentimental song consists of three related melodies.
  2. Gakavi Yerk (The Partridge‘s Song) (mm. 30–68) (Con moto), an original composition by Vardapet in common time, has a simple melody which is first stated in the woodwinds and then repeated by the brass. Its simple, delicate melody was intended for a children’s choir and is symbolic of that bird’s tiny steps.
  3. Hoy, Nazan Eem (Hoy, My Nazan) (mm. 69–185) (Allegretto non troppo) is a lively dance, mostly in 5/8 time, which naturally imposes an unusual pattern of additive meter—the notes repeatedly change from 3+2 eighth notes per bar to 2+3 eighth notes per bar. In this song, a young man sings the praises of his beloved, named Nazan.
  4. Alagyaz (mm. 186–223) (Broadly, with expression), a folk song named for a mountain in Armenia, is a broad and majestic song in 3/4 time; it serves as a contrast to the fast, upbeat songs that come both before and after.
  5. Gna, Gna (Go, Go) (mm. 224–422) (Allegro vivo con fuoco) is a very fast, delightful, and humorous laughing-song in 2/4 time; it builds in volume and speed until the exciting conclusion of the piece.

The first section is broad and sprawling and kind of epically brilliant. It shimmers and glistens and soars. The orchestra kind of blossoms out into this glorious opening. There is so so so much going on in just these few bars, from the splendid opening fanfare, timpani, to beautiful bass lines, and more sentimental, softer bits to follow. Lower woodwinds work against the flutes for a bit in what sounds exotic and soothing before it all swells back up to a climax, even greater than before, articulated by runs in the high woodwinds that finish with trills (I don’t have a score…) Alto sax (represent!) has a lyrical and nostalgic line that is rich and warm, and this leads into the second section.
Listen for the bells that start to tinker away. This lyrical, singing line kind of gets passed around from section to section. It’s delicate and light, and our conductor referred to this passage as a beauty pageant. It’s not a competition, but each ‘singer’ has a chance to show off with such a beautiful melody. It’s pleasant and peaceful and heavenly. The woodwind and brass take turns with the line, until the whole ensemble joins in for a bit. It all slows down some, and we enter the third section.
It’s fun and kind of the most exotic of the five, because it’s in 5/8 time, as mentioned above, an additive meter of alternating 2+3, then 3+2. This was so hard for some of us to count at first until we just kind of gave up counting and really got familiar with the rhythm and just kind of… felt it. It’s a dance, and it really kind of gets into you. It starts quietly, but builds up to quite a raucous climax. The bassoons carry the main heartbeat as it starts, but the saxophone sings the melody. There’s tambourine and all that, and the whole ensemble begins to join after a few bars with countermelodies. It’s a hell of a lot of fun once you get used to it. The raucous climax is reached and everything dies down quietly and fades away, leading into the fourth section.
It’s incredibly expressive, lyrical, and flowing. It’s in 3/4, but it feels like one, long, connected never-ending line of music. It’s warm and round and full and rich sounding; it’s sentimental, and almost bittersweet. There are so many gorgeous moments in this little section to cherish, solo passages and melodies and countermelodies, it’s a perfect quiet passage of repose in contrast to what comes before and after it, but it doesn’t last too long. There’s kind of a tense pause as clarinets finish their line, and then…
Buckle up. This final section is roaring fast. It’s kind of like… uncontrollable laughter that’s contagious and fun and unrestrained. This section sounds like the wheels are just about to fall off, but it’s always perfectly metered and under control, which is surprising considering the TKWO’s speed here. It has almost a oom-pah-pah kind of feel, but it’s in 2/4. Woodwinds are busy, and there’s lots of percussion for texture, roaring brass, just tons of fun, and quite humorous, almost Sabre-dance ish, but never distasteful. The piece climbs and climbs and climbs and energy continues to build to an electrifying, almighty climax to finish the piece off commandingly and forcefully. It’s literally breathtaking. In the recording I have, the audience is practically already clapping by the time the last note is rung out.
This is a piece I enjoyed so much because it had everything. It was expressive and stunningly beautiful, powerful and commanding, rich and complex, but also at turns incredibly sweet and simple, and above all, it felt like serious, challenging music that we as sophomores and juniors were very proud of performing. It was a show-off piece for us, I think, and I love listening to it to this day.

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