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University of Kansas Wind Ensemble at Carnegie Hall

University of Kansas Wind Ensemble, Carnegie Hall

"Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Become a world famous orchestra, pianist, or singer—or, just cough up about $25,000.

Whenever a student or other amateur ensemble rents out Carnegie Hall, most seasoned New Yorkers groan and look the other way. After all, most of these unsanctioned visits tend to be vanity tours for the ensembles involved, stoked about traveling to the Big City to play on the World's Most Famous Stage (and maybe catch a matinee of Mamma Mia! while they're in town.) 

Every now and again, however, a jewel can be found among this wasteland of student recitals and overdressed soloists. Case in point: last night's concert by the University of Kansas Wind Ensemble. Yes, Dorothy, the Jayhawks are known for more than just basketball: these kids have developed a reputation as one of the best wind bands in the land, with no less than four Naxos albums under their belt.

paul popiel, ji hye jung and gwendolyn burgett

Integral to the KU Wind Ensemble's success is their director, Paul Popiel, who has been a strong advocate for new music, commissioning and premiering numerous new works for the ensemble, as evidenced last night with the programming of Philip Glass' Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists (2001): a three-movement work filled with Glass' familiar repetitions and crescendos. Soloists Gwendolyn Burgett and Ji Hye Jung—percussion teachers at Michigan State and KU, respectively—gave a visceral, engaging performance, despite persistent problems with balance and clarity. 

The real highlight came after intermission, when Mohammed Fairouz's In the Shadow of No Towers (Symphony No. 4), received its world premiere. Fairouz, 27, has emerged as one of today's most prolific young composers, with no fewer than four symphonies, an opera, and 14 song cycles to his credit. Inspired by Art Spiegelman's divisive comic about the aftermath of 9/11, Fairouz's symphony unfolds over four movements, with each based on one of Spiegelman's panels. Arab-American by birth, Fairouz said it took him several years before he felt comfortable taking on this material. 

University of Kansas Wind Ensemble, Carnegie Hall

The first movement, The New Normal, depicted a family asleep on a couch watching TV, shocked out of their slumber on 9/11 (evoked by a terrifying blast of brass and percussion), only to fall back asleep on September 12. Notes of a Heartbroken Narcissist built an eerie atmosphere of anxiety and fear through bass, low piano, and edged cymbals, sounding like a sword constantly being sheathed and unsheathed. One Nation Under Two Flags divided the ensemble in two—one side representing "blue" states, the other "red"—and included everything from Glass-like structures to a Sousa-like march. The final movement, Anniversaries (duration: 9'11"), featured the ominous tick of a clock, depicted by woodblocks. Fairouz soon added noble brass that eventually builds to a Shostakovich-like bombast, intended to be just as tongue-in-cheek as the finale to that composer's Fifth Symphony. 

Throughout, the KU Wind Ensemble, which spent six weeks preparing this material, showed amazing chops in their transitions and an impressive range of dynamics—everything from super-soft to deafeningly loud. Give credit to Popiel for going way out on a limb, as most directors would have played it safe and given such a young ensemble something familiar to perform on their first-ever visit to Carnegie Hall. But, Popiel went for broke, succeeding in showing us that there is, in fact, real, adventurous music being made over on the other side of the rainbow. 

paul popiel and mohammed fairouz

Listen to Fairouz speak about In the Shadow of No Towers here. More pics on the photo page.