Before pulling out of CLARC last week, a bus driver turned to talk to his passengers.
Both confused and awestruck, he asked the passengers ? all Eastman students ? exactly what the study of music involves.
“You plan to study it all of your lives?” he asked. “There’s still new stuff to discover after studying it for so many years?”
Concerts like the one given Tuesday night in Kilbourn Hall inspire musicians of all ages to answer both questions with an adamant “yes.” This year’s Alec Wilder Celebration, a concert showcasing works by the Rochester native and former Eastman student, proved that the spirit of innovation and exploration never goes out of style.
In New York City, there has been an annual tribute to Wilder for almost 20 years. The first ever all-Wilder concert at Eastman was given on what would have been Wilder’s birthday ? Feb. 16 ? two years ago. This year’s Rochester celebration contained a diverse and entertaining selection of Wilder’s pieces.
The concert began with the “Up-tempo” movement of Wilder’s Suite No. 2 for Solo Trumpet, a piece composed in 1977 for the man who performed it Tuesday evening ? new music specialist and Lawrence University trumpet professor Robert Levy.
Levy, a friend of Wilder’s while the composer was alive, engrossed the audience with his lively interpretation of each of the piece’s six short movements.
The next piece, “Blackberry Winter” also placed Levy in the spotlight. Composed in the last quarter of Wilder’s life, the song was inspired by a short winter that invaded the south one June and lasted several days. The interplay between Levy and Eastman piano professor Tony Caramia was sensitively balanced, resulting in a beautiful interplay between the instruments.
Levy and Caramia followed “Blackberry Winter” with the syncopated, energized “Baggage Room Blues” before Levy gave up the stage to acclaimed flutist Karen Demsey. Demsey dedicated the Sonata No. 2 for Flute and Piano to Lou and Helen Ouzer, two friends of Wilder’s and active members of the Eastman community. After making this dedication, Demsey floated notes over Caramia’s multi-textured piano accompaniment with a graceful fluidity.
The next set of songs paired Caramia with assistant professor of bass Jeff Campbell. The first piece of a set of three, entitled “Jazz Waltz for a Friend,” was written for singer Marian McPartland.
After an intermission, the Faculty Woodwind Quintet took the stage to perform the “Effie Suite.” The tuba player who solos in this piece must tell the story of Effie the elephant as she “chases a monkey,” “falls in love” and “sings a lullaby,” among other things. Don Harry, assistant professor of tuba, brought out the melodies of each segment over waltz, oom-pah-pah and syncopated rhythms. It wasn’t hard to envision a happy-go-lucky elephant gallivanting around town.
Three fabulous jazzers ? Harold Danko, Rich Thompson and Clay Jenkins ? joined bassist Campbell to perform three more of Wilder’s compositions. These works were followed by Wilder’s Jazz Suite for Brass Quintet, featuring the Eastman Brass. The evening was concluded with Manny Album’s arrangement of “I’ll Be Around,” a favorite on the Wilder Celebration program since its first presentation in 2000.
Wilder was born right in Rochester in 1907. He started a composition degree at Eastman, but left the school without finishing in order to experience the world.
Wilder’s career and life were anything but mainstream. Despite his extreme shyness and eccentricity, Alec Wilder forged connections with big names in the music business, including Marian McPartland, Mitch Miller and Frank Sinatra. A nomad of sorts, Wilder never really settled down. The place he called home for much of his life was the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. He traveled frequently and stayed often both in random hotels and with friends.
Wilder composed a large body of art songs before his death in 1980, and is also known for numerous compositions for wind ensembles. In addition, he wrote prolifically for tuba, marimba and euphonium.
Many musicians have praised Wilder’s music over the decades. Others, mainly in Wilder’s time, gave his music a more lukewarm reception because of its refusal to fit neatly into any category. Wilder’s compositions straddle the domains of the classical and jazz genres in a way that was never particularly fashionable or politically charged.
Exactly how many works did Wilder compose? This is a mystery. He usually only composed for close friends and left manuscripts wherever he spent time. Luckily, he has a myriad of admirers in Rochester who will ensure for years to come that “there’s still new stuff to discover” for those of us who aren’t exceptionally familiar with the innovative American composer.
Additional reporting by Kirsten Swanson.Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.