Wind Ensemble mixes contrasting sounds

LAKE PLACID – This weekend, the Adirondack Wind Ensemble is unleashing a program of contrasting sounds onto North Country audiences.

The show, “Contrasts,” will feature a Russian march, a soundscape inspired by an overgrown-garden, a rollicking symposium of absurdity and an audio portrait of a Mexican fiesta, all performed by about 40 of the region’s top musicians.

Saturday’s 4 p.m. show will mark the ensemble’s fifth performance at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts. They will also perform in SUNY?Plattsburgh’s E. Glenn Giltz Auditorium at 2 p.m. Sunday.

Conductor Daniel Gordon, professor and chair of SUNY Plattsburgh’s Music Department, entertained the idea of starting the wind ensemble in 2001 to provide an opportunity for musicians in the area to play at a high skill level.

To his surprise, it came together quickly.

“In late 2001 I sent out an email to a bunch of musicians, just to see if there was interest, and just about everyone said yes,” Gordon said. “So I sent out a rehearsal time, and again everyone said yes. It just came together. I was astounded that it was going to work.”

The ensemble has continued to work in subsequent years, sometimes growing and shrinking depending on its members’ other obligations. They typically perform one program a year after the holidays.

Anyone who has tried to piece together a rock band knows how difficult it can be to work with five different people’s schedules. Multiply that by 10, and scheduling quickly becomes a daunting task.

“My philosophy for the rehearsals is that I’m going to respect everyone’s time because I know everyone’s busy, but I still want to put together a high-quality performance,” Gordon said. “So now we have opposing forces here because if we rehearse five times, we can put on a great performance, but then I’m asking for a lot of people’s time.”

To work better with people’s schedules, Gordon compromised by having two practices and a dress rehearsal before showtime. That means each performer has to do his or her homework.

“We have fewer practices, but everyone needs to show up with their part learned,” Gordon said. “You can’t learn your part during the rehearsal. In the real professional world, you don’t get more than two or three rehearsals before you have to perform.”

Gordon explained that the concept of the modern wind ensemble began in the mid-1900s when Frederick Fennel, a conductor at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, decided to scale the typical orchestra down to the size of the wind section of a symphony orchestra.

“The issue is, if you want to have real artistic balance to this, you have to control the instrumentation,” Gordon said.

In time, composers began to write pieces specifically for wind ensembles. Recently, Montreal-based composer Melissa Hui even wrote a piece called “Living Things,” for this weekend’s program. It is the first piece commissioned by the Adirondack Wind Ensemble.

“She came to a rehearsal and it was very exciting for her to hear her piece played by humans for the first time,” Gordon said. “It’s exciting for the players, too, because the know the person who wrote it is sitting right there listening.”

Hui’s piece is inspired by an overgrown garden and the juxtaposition of various plants climbing all over each other.

Hui gave the piece a contrasting world sound by using high flutes to mimic the sound of a traditional Japanese instrument made from 15 bamboo pipes and using the low brass section to replicate the sound of a digeridoo, an indigenous Australian instrument.

“Audience members will have to approach this piece with a different set of ears, because it’s not the same type of Western music we can expect a melody and supporting harmonies,” Gordon said. “It layers into different musical episodes or musical ideas that layer on top of each other. It’s a different kind of sound.”

Diane Fish of Lake Placid will play flute with the ensemble for the third time this weekend. Fish said she appreciates the opportunity to play with a skilled group of musicians and said performing a piece that’s never been played before is an added bonus.

“When you’re playing traditional music, the composers are long gone,” Fish said. “To actually have the composer there with us, directing us and explaining to us what she was looking for, is really interesting. It’s a challenge to understand what they’re asking you to communicate, and it’s rewarding when we actually find it, of bringing it to fruition.”

Fish said she puts in about eight hours a week on top of rehearsal times.

“I have a full-time job so I don’t think I could be involved on a weekly basis, but it’s so important to realize all of the talent we have in the Tri-Lakes area,” Fish said. “If there are parents out there whose kids play an instrument, I’d encourage them to come and hear what these instruments can actually sound like. It’s inspiring.”

This year’s ensemble will open with “March, Op. 99” by Sergei Prokofiev. It will also feature the sophisticatedly ridiculous “Grand Serenade for an Awful Lot of Winds and Percussion” by Johann Sebastian Bach’s long-lost and nearly forgotten descendent PDQ Bach.

The second half of the program will contain H. Owen Reed’s “La Fiesta Mexicana,” a three-movement piece inspired by the sights and sounds of a Mexican fiesta day.

For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit