Rob Wagner's World of Sight and Sound

PERFORMANCE GUIDES FOR CONCERT BAND


OCTOBER (Eric Whitacre) by Rob Wagner

I always gravitate towards music that offers strong, emotive lyrical lines. Music that sings to the heart, not just the head. Music that expresses love, joy, sadness, or invites reflection, soul-searching and other forms of introspection. We don’t have enough of it in the wind band repertoire. And much of what is produced contains cliche-ridden lines that have long over-stayed their welcome.

Eric Whitacre’s
October offers lovely evocative melodies and rich texture-filled harmonies to create a work of many colours - not unlike the leaves of autumn. This Grade 4 level work, completed by the composer in February 2000 and published later that year, is ideal for advanced school and community bands, as well as offering a special contrasting break in a concert program. The work is technically not hard…..but it is hard to play well! The writing features a delightful mix of instrumental combinations, from just a few players to the full forces of the entire ensemble. It is a most enjoyable composition to explore. So, let’s take a walk through the score of October.
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The Composer - Eric Whitacre
There is no doubt that Eric Whitacre is an exceptional talent in the areas of composition, performance and conducting. There is more than just one spark of creative genius here - his ability to work within and across artistic mediums demonstrates this genius. Born in 1970, this still-young man has already achieved much, including:

  • A Grammy Award for his first album Light & Gold (as composer and conductor)

  • His second album Water Night (April 2012) debuted at No.1 on both the iTunes and Billboard Classical charts on the day of release

  • The use of the Internet and YouTube for his three Virtual Choir projects, involving singers from across the world (check this out on YouTube - wonderful stuff!)

  • Writing works for the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, Berlin Rundfunkchor, the Kings Singers, Tallis Scholars, BBC Proms and many others

  • His musical Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings won both the ASCAP Harold Arlen and Richard Rodgers Awards, and earned 10 nominations at the Los Angeles Stage Alliance Ovation Awards

  • His work in film music, including collaboration with Hans Zimmer on Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

  • The March 1, 2013 TED Conference where he present the first ‘live’ Virtual Choir performing Cloudburst

Many of Whitacre’s works have entered the choral, symphonic and wind ensemble repertoire. Compositional awards have been bestowed from the Barlow International Composition Competition, the American Choral Directors Association, and the American Composers Forum. He studied at the New York Julliard School, studying with the Pulitzer Prize and Oscar-winning composer John Corigliano. He is currently Composer in Residence at the Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge University, UK.

Concept and Background
Whitacre holds affection for the month of October (autumn in the Northern Hemisphere, or as they say in North America “the Fall”). On the score he writes:

“October is my favorite month. Something about the crisp autumn air and the subtle change in light always makes me a little sentimental, and as I started to sketch I felt the same quiet beauty in the writing. The simple, pastoral melodies and subsequent harmonies are inspired by the great English Romantics (Vaughn Williams, Elgar) as I felt that this style was also perfectly suited to capture the natural and pastoral soul of the season. I’m quite happy with the end result, especially because I feel there just isn’t enough lush, beautiful music written for winds.”

October was commissioned by the Nebraska Wind Consortium comprising thirty high schools from that State. It is dedicated to Brian Anderson, the Consortium Chair and was premiered on May 14th, 2000.

Musical opportunities abound in this work and musicians can learn much in rehearsing and performing it. It draws upon Romanticism as its life-blood through constant tempo variations, lyrical writing, phrase manipulation, dynamic contrast, and textural shifts. It is emotive writing - all about ebb and flow - allowing the ensemble freedom to explore the expressive elements of music performance. Having said that, however, it is incumbent upon the conductor to follow closely the instructions detailed in the score by the composer. Achieving musical balance between each section of the work requires some careful decision-making on the part of the conductor, to ensure that a meaningful performance is arrived at, while remaining faithful to the composer’s intentions. Whitacre helps us here by liberally employing both expressive and tempo instructions.

The work is appropriate for a mature grade four level ensemble. Mature, not because of its technical difficulties (most of the individual parts could be performed well by grade three level bands), but rather because of the demands placed on tempo, melodic and rhythmic independence, harmonic complexity, tonal balance and blend, and expressive considerations.

Time Signatures: 4/4, 3/4, 2/2, 5/4

Key Signatures: Concert D-flat, A-flat, B-flat, G. Many tonal key centres beyond the key signatures are employed.

Expressive and Tempo Related Terms: cantabile y molto legato; rubato assai, con moto y rubato, poco più mosso, teneramente, dolce, allargando, maestoso, sostenuto, ritardando, etc.

Instrumentation: The score includes parts for bassoon 1 & 2, bass clarinet 1 & 2, french horns 1-4, euphonium 1 & 2, tuba 1 & 2. Although a performance is not dependent upon having all parts covered, (some effective use of doubling is employed) the conductor may need to make the occasional decision on whether, for example, the bass clarinet 1 or 2 part should be covered in a certain section. The percussion demands are modest and can be covered by three players.

Solos: oboe (cued in flute), euphonium (cued in tenor saxophone)

Introduction: (Bars 1-9)
The opening of this work is intriguing, atmospheric. The Bb minor key communicates a slightly sombre feeling, but also one of expectation. Our opening notes are a single warm pianissimo concert Bb in the first clarinets to the accompaniment of soft wind chimes - starting high and falling to the lower chime bars. The chimes should be the orchestral type, not the four or five-bar versions you find in the back garden! Better still are the double row chimes, which are easier to play and control. Also endeavour to create a randomness to the chime sounds. Some subtly of use can be most effective here.

Against this backdrop we hear the oboe’s simple introduction in 5/4 time (cued in the flute, but sounds so much better on oboe!). This should be conducted in a 3+2 pattern enabling an opportunity to stretch a little the length of beats 4 and 5, especially in bar 7 where a hint of holding back the last beat would be musically appropriate. The shape of the oboe motif is determined principally by the rising and falling dynamics marked in each bar, requiring a nostalgic sensitivity, a sweet tone quality, a light vibrato, and leaning just a little onto the Db. The accompanying rising notes in clarinets 2 and 3 must shadow the dynamics of the soloist. Bars 8 and 9 (4/4 time) are in tempo and, again, just a little stretch of the third and fourth beats in bar 9 would announce the start of the main musical material. The snare drum roll in bar 8 must start very softly.

Section A: (Bars 10-18)
This work is full of tempos that move forward and relax back, and Section A (Theme 1) is our first example. The alternating 3/4 and 4/4 bars at the slightly faster crotchet = 72 is also marked
Con moto y rubato. Says it all, really! So the 3/4 bars have the tendency to move while the 4/4 bars relax back. “Tendency” is the operative word here - the tempo shifts are not dramatic - just musical!! The dynamics for this section rises from mezzo forte, peaking at bar 14. Quick breaths are required between each phrase so that the lyrical lines are not interrupted unnecessarily by gaping holes. In bar 15 some instruments come to rest on the fermata with a crochet while others (flutes and clarinets) have the fermata on the first of two quavers. So, your conducting pattern must also show the last quaver of the bar (“4-and”) after the fermata (see Fig. 1). This will also help the bassoon/euphoniums/tubas make a secure entrance with the upper woodwinds into the 3/4 at bar 16. At this point, I like to think of the two 3/4 bars here as representing the falling leaves of the northern hemisphere’s autumn season (“the Fall”). Again, a very subtle relaxation of the tempo in bars 17 and 18 would be effective. The two beat Ab seventh chord provided by the saxes and horns can sometimes be a little out of tune, so it’s important for the musicians to listen down to the tonic of the chord (B. Sax and FH4).
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Section B: (Bars 19-30)
The tempo picks up ever so slightly at Section B (Theme 2). Stress to the upper woodwinds the importance of 2-bar phrases at the beginning of this section. I have found less experienced musicians either breathe too frequently or interrupt the musical flow with long inhalations. Long connected lines are demanded throughout this work. In bar 20, resting momentarily on beat 3 will help to shape the phrase and provide the music with poise for the next two-bar phrase.

The melodic idea in bar 19 is
mezzo piano and then answered four bars later with mezzo forte. Make sure this mf is not too loud - sheer weight of numbers will bring up the dynamics anyway, and we want to save something for the forte a couple of bars later. Bar 23 - trumpets 2 and 3 make an entrance that should be played warmly. You’ll also notice that the flutes/clarinets/alto sax 1 are in unison with them. Personally, I like the contrasting change to a brass tone colour at this point, so I ask my woodwinds to blend into the trumpet sound for this short figure.

The decrescendo at bar 26 is important as we prepare for the
forte four bars later. And again, the composer is very specific about where he wants his rising and falling dynamics, so ensure that your musicians are observing them, especially in bars 27-29.

Bars 27 and 28 - flute 2, clar 2, Bsn 2, horn 3 &4, and euph 2 should bring out their descending line so that the two suspensions are audibly resolved. If your ensemble has not got all these parts covered, then you must encourage the available musicians to project so the tension and release of the suspensions are well-heard. It’s a great effect! Similarly in bar 29, the lovely clash of the Eb in trumpet 1 against the D in trumpet 2 requires a confident delivery and then resolution on beat 3.

Bar 30 - this is the first of three climatic points and all musicians must work together to achieve a full, broad sound. Holding back the tempo momentarily before entering Section C is appropriate for dramatic effect.

Section C: (Bars 31-39)
The beginning of Section C (return of Theme 1, briefly) is powerful. Carrying through from the buildup of the two previous bars, richness of tone is paramount. Instruments such as tuba, 2nd and 3rd trombones, baritone sax and bassoon can help the ensemble gain a sonorous sound by making sure their lines are providing the necessary strength and tonal support upon which the upper ensemble sections can rest their sound. The earlier 3/4 and 4/4 alternating bars again call for shaping the two bar phrases, e.g. A slight tapering of volume from the second beat in bar 32 before rising again at the next 3/4 bar will assist with shaping - it should feel musical and natural - not forced or over exaggerated.

As the low brass decrescendo takes hold in bar 34, the woodwinds become suddenly hushed (
subito mp) for the teneramente (tenderly, delicately) bars. In the 2-bar phrase at the beginning of teneramente, take care to blend the Flute/Clar 1/A. Sax so that the individual tone colours mix into a warm and pure quality. The same can be said for the answering phrase at the end of bar 37 with the Clar 1/ A. Sax 1/ F. Horn 1 blend. Personally, I like to have the horn colour predominate slightly more here because it enhances the warmth of the line - but you may prefer another blend. The pace slackens ten “clicks” to a crotchet = 66 and a lovely little echo effect is heard in the brass and bassoons, relaxing the dramatic moments just passed. Controlled playing at this soft dynamic is required with each lyrical line having it’s own importance. It would be musically appropriate to hold the 4th beat of bar 39 before launching into Section D.
Section D: (Bars 40-52)
The last few bars of Section C create the anticipation of something new about to be introduced (Theme 3). It comes in the form of a cantabile euphonium solo (cued in tenor saxophone) over tremolo clarinets. The soloist is instructed to play dolce, freely in a song-like fashion, straight from the heart. It’s a wonderful melody and provides the soloist with a brief expressive display (Fig. 2).
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The tempo must move along here (crotchet = 84) and the line works best at that speed. The background clarinet tremolo must shimmer, so a fast and even finger action is required. Occasionally, I have found that lesser experienced clarinetists concentrate so much effort on producing the tremolo (possibly because it not something that may have executed very often in the past) that the volume can rise, becoming an intrusion. Have them practise this technique so that they can control the dynamics during execution.

There’s a brief moment of support echoed from the ensemble in bars 43 and 44. Ensure that the quaver rest is clearly heard between the ensemble’s three and five-note figures, and the indicated dynamics are observed. The euphonium melody is taken up canonically by the ensemble, surging forward for several bars before a repeat of the echo figure and a significant
ritardando over the last two bars of this section. Musicians will need to keep in touch with the conductor during tempo variations. Those with successive quavers and the two-quaver/crotchet figure in the last four bars must keep the tempo under control.
Section E: (Bars 53-71)
If the ensemble is going to come unglued in this work, it’s in Section E that it will most likely happen! It’s important for the conductor to have clarity of beat. That’s what the musicians want! No flowery, showy stuff…..just give them a indication of where the beat is and how the tempo changes. They’ll thank you for it!!

The reason for this? Although there is no time signature change, the composer wants the first part of this section conducted in 2, instead of 4. The tempo is marked as a minim = 60. But the fourth bar receives an instruction of
Rit. Molto…., with a fermata on the fourth beat and a quaver on the “and-of-4” (as described earlier in Section A), then back to tempo in 2 for three bars, but with the inclusion of a ritardando, then finally continuing the section in 4. So, there’s much variation of tempo and the potential for disaster.

However, this is the way I’ve found it works best ….at least for me, anyway! (see Fig. 3 below showing just the clarinet parts as an example).

  • Bar 52 (before Section E – not shown here) – Over the four beats, stretch the rit., momentarily holding the fourth beat before going to the next bar.

  • Bars 53-55 – (Section E) Use a clear 2-pattern at minim = 60.

  • Bar 56 – Rit. molto - Go back to a 4-pattern so that the musicians can clearly see (and control) the rapidly slowing tempo. On the 4th beat hold the fermata momentarily, then indicate the “and” for the flute/clarinet/trumpet 2 at the tempo required of the next bar.

  • Bars 57-59 - Back into the 2-pattern, slowing across bars 58 and 59.

  • Bar 60 - Back into the 4-pattern and gradually slowing the tempo over those six bars, till you reach the 5/4 bars of the original tempo.
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It sounds harder than it really is, so less experienced conductors should not be put off by the above advice! Have a go! It’s fun!!

Section E is the second climatic point. As usual, tone quality is paramount as the section goes from full ensemble all the way down to a single oboe note! It’s magnificent writing and a feature of the work. Some other things to watch out for include:

  • In the climax, encourage everyone to watch and listen - strive for clarity, ensuring all the lines are heard.

  • Don’t let the forte drop off too soon. Diminuendos begin to appear from bar 58

  • Make the most of the mp, p and pp, and the little cresc./decresc. symbols that appear between bars 61 and 69.

  • Bar 59 - Encourage clarinet 1 and trumpet 1 to project the descending crotchets just enough so that they are clearly heard, and that they watch you for the tempo - they are like the “hand-brake” before we enter the “In 4” tempo of the next bar.

  • Bars 61-63 - Strive for good blend between the saxes and horns.

  • Bar 65 – Clarinet 3 has a suspension on the first beat, releasing on the third beat. Although they are marked piano and have a decrescendo as well, we still need to hear the resolution note clearly.

  • Bars 66-69 - If only one bass clarinet in the ensemble, then play the lower notes

  • Bar 69 - Conduct the 6/4 bar in a subdivided 3-pattern (2+2+2).
Section F: (Bars 72-89)
Blend and tone again becomes critical as the woodwind and saxophone choirs join in a lovely, almost reflective Theme 4. Balancing the minims and moving crotchet parts can be tricky here. I like the Flute 2/Clar 2/A. Sax 1 parts to bring out their line just a little more till the second beat of Bar 73, then allow the Flute 1/Clar 1 line to take over. The reason for this? It helps to give these few bars a little more energy and motion. However, this is personal preference and may not suit your own tastes.

As the low brass enters in bar 76, their sounds must fit like a glove into the woodwind texture created above. There is some lovely overlapping writing between Trumpets, Horns and Saxes between bars 77 and 81 - entrances should be clearly heard and lines well-shaped. Bar 80 - The A. Sax/Horn 1 & 2/Euph line has an important crescendo and the crotchets in the next bar should soar out over the ensemble sound.

The
forte at bar 84 is full and rich. Once we have reached 85, you could choose to move the tempo along just a little through this descending passage, and then pull back a little at 87 before entering the 3/4 bar. Due to the tempo variation, T. Sax/Horns 3 & 4 will need to watch the conductor while playing their quaver run in Bar 88. In Bar 89, a significant Rit. can be most effective here.
Section G: (Bars 90-97)
In this recapitulation of Theme 1, tempo changes abound for dramatic effect. Bars 90-92 are conducted with vigor, but the following
molto rit bar see the brakes rapidly applied, especially on beats 3 and 4 where I prefer to conduct subdivisions of each beat so that the horns and trumpets can execute emphatic bell tones. This is another climatic moment requiring masses of wonderfully rich tone quality, with a shrewd ear to making sure all the important lines are not swamped in the process!

Once we reach Bar 94, we are back into tempo, and I like to give a subtle nudge to the tempo in 95-96 before hitting the Allargando in 97. I would also suggest that the long notes in upper woodwinds/Trumpet 1 & 3 (beginning in Bar 94) be played slightly softer to start so that a subtle crescendo can be used to great effect to supporting and energising the descending lines in other parts. Bar 97 - It’s musically appropriate for the low brass/winds to slightly detach the first two crotchets.

Section H: (Bars 98-103)
This short section needs the upper woodwinds to gradually crescendo on trills. Staggered breathing will likely be necessary so as not to break the effect. Overlapping crotchet entrances in saxes and brass need to be clear and balanced. Bar 103 - Make the most of this final high point in the work; don’t be in a hurry to move on. BUT……I suggest your lead trumpet player takes a breath before beat 4……otherwise you might have an on-stage death on your hands!!
Section I: (Bars 104-113)
The final section brings the work to a most satisfying conclusion - ten bars starting at
fortissimo and ending in pianissimo. All moving lines to come “to the fore”, not with a strident quality but rather in a way that brings a calm across the music to it final resting G7th chord. Bars 110 and 111 are conducted with soft hands, stopping ever so briefly on beat 4 so that we can enjoy the delicate rumble of the timpani’s low G before playing the chord again in the next bar.

Your musicians will learn much from studying
October. And the feedback I have received whenever I have performed it has been most positive from both musicians and audiences alike. When performed well, it’s impact can be profound. I do hope you find this Performance Guide useful and that you will consider October for inclusion at a future concert. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments: rob@robwagner.com.au

October by Eric Whitacre is published by Hal Leonard.

This Performance Guide was first published in the November 2013 edition (Vol 18, No. 3) of the
Interlude journal.

This guide is not to be reproduced without the expressed written permission of the author.