The Hodgson Wind Ensemble of the University of Georgia returned once again with another groundbreaking installment of their fall performing series this past Thursday evening. Under the direction Cynthia Johnston Turner, this pre-professional student ensemble displayed their famous strategy of programming powerfully themed concerts with an agenda; Turner often uses music to start conversations about pressing social and political issues of our time, reframing classical works in a modern light while also commissioning and introducing newer works that are directly born from this age of controversy.
Last month, the Wind Ensemble tackled the topic of climate change in their smartly titled performance, “Fire and Ice.” This time, however, the theme selected is as equally hard-hitting: mental illness and mental health. With an even added level of anticipation, the Wind Ensemble delivered the North American premiere of Catherine Likhuta’s controversial oratorio Scraps from a Madman’s Diary. Transcending the realm of standard concert band performance, the ensemble created a ground-breaking, provocative, and at times, deeply unsettling holistic musical experience that no doubt made a lasting impression on all who attended.
The evening began when unannounced trumpets sounded from the lobby balcony, startling idle patrons with the unconventionality of beginning a formal concert from outside of the auditorium. As guests bewilderedly looked about, they spotted a small brass ensemble nestled in the overhead walkway, expounding the heraldic bright notes of Michael Cortes’ Fanfare Valor. With gusto from dramatic timpani rolls and the rich epic layering of brass sound, this ceremoniously sounding piece excitedly announced the arrival of the Wind Ensemble and, as guests continued to file into the concert hall, the epic and powerful sounds of the fanfare ushered them all the way to their seats with eager anticipation for what was to follow.
When the lights finally lowered, the musicians on stage fell silent as Turner walked across to take her place on the center podium. They shared one collective moment of silent breath, and began. Discordant woodwind trills filled the ears of audience members; first on the program was the two-movement piece Dragon Rhyme by prolific composer Chen Yi, who is known for blending Chinese and Western traditions in her music. Although perhaps unsavory to the American ear, the opening measures clashed in the suspended intervals common to Beijing opera. Through rousing repeated eighth note passages and furious sounding brass, Yi’s work evoked the image of a majestic dragon in the second part, creating a layered and multidimensional work that mimicked the liveliness of eastern culture.
When Turner’s arms finally came to rest by her side at the conclusion of the piece and silence fell once again, graduate conducting student Bradley J. Esau took his turn on the podium to lead John Adams’ Lollapalooza. A metrically tight dance of intricate and cascading runs, Lollapalooza showed off the ensembles’ trombones and tubas as they repeated just one of many cyclical chains of sound. Mirroring the internal rhyme of the piece’s title (da-da-da-DAAH-da), the chains represent a kind of idée fixe that can dominate the mind, and while the piece is technically no piece of cake, the ensembles’ evident preparation allowed the listener to become lost in the complex pool of sound as it ebbed and flowed like an idea trapped and bouncing about in the mind.
Rounding out the first half of the program was the emotive Funeral Music for Queen Mary (after Purcell) by Steven Stucky. Here was when the Wind Ensemble flexed their famed ability to elicit powerful emotional responses through performance as they honored the deeply visceral feelings of grief prompted by this transcription of Purcell’s funeral music for Queen Mary II of England. Although there is no such thing as a perfect performance, the ensemble came just about as close as possible to delivering a flawlessly moving interpretation of Stucky’s piece with their expert intonation wholly sustained even through the loudest of louds and softest of softs.
With the first half of the concert concluded, another surprise yet again came to the audience. Instead of beginning a typical and expected intermission, the lights remained low; Turner turned to address the audience.
“1 in 4 of us lives with mental illness,” she said into a microphone. The formal atmosphere of the hall immediately melted away into a feeling of intimate vulnerability.
“This is a significant part of our society that we often feel uncomfortable talking about, because we don’t understand it or because it frightens us,” she said through the still silence. After a pause, she continued: “Avoiding conversation about mental health will not help anyone.”
With that, a recorded piece by Badie Khaleghian (titled Just As You Are) began to play from the auditorium’s speakers. A woman’s somber voice began to speak over sustained keyboard drones; “One person commits suicide every 16 minutes,” she said. The piece continued on with overlapping voices, each saying another fact or personal experience with mental illness. A soprano could be heard lightly singing in the background, flowing throughout the spoken words and riding on the soft chords of the piano until finally all faded away. The audience sat transfixed in silence.
This purely electroacoustic piece set the tone for Likhuta’s work to follow in a constructive way. Providing a soberness for the dramatic depiction of insanity, the audience was then prepared to enter into the “madness” of Likhuta’s piece, reminded of the heavy importance of mental health in our society. After a brief set change, the time had finally come for Likhuta’s premiere.
The Wind Ensemble sat on the right of the stage in the dimmed lights as singers from UGA’s top vocal ensemble, the Hodgson Singers, filed in to the stand on the left. The lights remained low. The voices began singing in an eerie suspension of intervals; “Friday, the 18th of July,” they sang. Joined by the instruments, the chorus continued on to sing the 13 journal entries of the “madman” that traced his jagged and spiraling descent into mental instability. At times requiring dramatic theatrics, Likhuta’s work called for not only musicians, but performers of the highest caliber to effectively convey the deeply unsettling experience of the narrator’s madness. More than once, the material of the piece entered into a realm of disturbing darkness; it became painful to watch the confusion of the madman being portrayed as he switched in and out of his surrounding environment and the imagined world in his brain, not knowing which was true reality. In the height of the oratorio, the two conflicting sides of the madman’s brain finally met, and he realized in a terrifyingly creative scene of musicality and theatrics what has been happening in his life. In the falling action of the performance, the music turns softer and more introspective as the madman grasps to understand his mental illness through reconciling the scraps of consciousness found in his diary.
When the final note sounded, a pregnant pause filled the space between the overwhelming sounds that just concluded and the rapturous applause that exploded from the audience as they shot from their seats. In a deafening ovation to the musicians and composer, the first ever North American audience of Catherine Likhuta’s controversial piece showered curtains of applause over the ensemble for nearly five minutes, expressing a sincere appreciation for this profound work. The Wind Ensemble’s performance aimed to break the stigmas surrounding social misconceptions of mental illness, hopefully beginning ongoing conversations on how to raise awareness for social health not only through talk of this performance, but in our everyday lives as well.
Watch the performance of “Scraps from a Madman’s Diary” here.
Video courtesy of Catherine Likhuta YouTube