Ready or not, the wind ensemble is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this week right here at Eastman with a whole lot of hoopla and festivities. Who really cares anyway?

Well, for starters, I care. Please allow me to fill in those of you who are still clueless on what exactly all the fuss is about. Since I cannot possibly go into the intricacies of the origins of wind music or the “symphonic wind band movement” in America, I will give you the basic gist of things. Pay attention, string and piano players!


A long time ago, some composers decided that they weren’t only going to write instrumental music for strings and pianos. They figured that they might try to write for all of the funny wind instruments that were popping up so suddenly. Because of this phenomenon, we have concert and chamber music written for the wind ensemble by prestigious composers like Mozart, Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Sibelius and Strauss.

However, the wind ensembles began to feel threatened. The heavy brass orchestration of Bruckner and intense choruses of Mahler scared away the winds and they fled the concert halls around the world and were forced to become mobile ensembles ? marching bands.

Marching bands and community bands were very popular in America, largely because they were fun for both the players and the audiences. There were circus bands and military bands, and they all loved to play popular marches, gallops, quicksteps and waltzes by favorite composers like Sousa and King.

These marches are delightful additions to the wind ensemble repertory, but lack the extreme artistic expression dominated by other forms of instrumental music.

Finally, in a genius act of desperation, some conductors and composers decided that the unique sound produced by a wind ensemble was a necessary addition to the formal list of concert ensembles. As a result, wind bands moved back to their old homes in the theaters ? safe and sound.

The groups were armed with the artillery of the original wind ensemble instrumentation ? flutes, oboes, bassoons, clarinets, horns and string bass. In addition, new instruments ? piccolos, English horns, auxiliary clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, euphoniums, tubas, timpani and other percussion ? now helped the wind ensemble undergo a metamorphosis into the symphonic band.

Holst, Vaughan Williams, Grainger, Hindemith and other prominent composers wrote original band compositions in the early 20th century. The Eastman Wind Ensemble was one of the first ensembles to really raise the bar on the expectations of how expressive a wind ensemble could be.

Dr. Frederick Fennell became a world famous conductor for programming wind ensemble pieces with true musical integrity, commissioning new works for band and releasing recordings of many of the great new pieces written for wind ensembles. These actions served to strengthen the popularity of the entire genre.

The same high standards hold true today for the ensemble, under the direction of Donald Hunsberger, who also remains very active in the circle of wind band music.

These days, there is a large assortment of prominent repertory available for the wind ensemble. Some of the best include compositions by Persichetti, Gould and Creston.

The sound of a wind is very different from that of a symphony orchestra. I dislike it when people try to compare wind ensembles to orchestras ? they are distinct and each deserve ample consideration and respect.

Today, the Eastman Wind Ensemble is still called a “wind ensemble” because it has the flexibility to play all of the above-specified genres of wind music, from the Mozart “Gran Partita” to Alfred Reed’s “Russian Christmas Music.”

50th Anniversary celebration

There will be many great performances and lectures this week to celebrate the Eastman Wind Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary. To enrich your musical experience, attend some of the events ? or, go to the Sibley Library and listen to some good wind repertory if you never have.

To learn the “real” story behind all of this you can also check online at the Wind Ensemble’s 50th anniversary Web page,, or check out Donald Hunsberger’s book, “The Wind Ensemble and its Repertoire.”

Meyer can be reached at

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