Tone Poem Tuesday (Wednesday edition)

Yesterday was really busy, hence nothing but a short post about voting (by the way, nice work, America!). Today we have a piece by Aaron Copland, but the occasion is the passing of Donald Hunsberger.

Hunsberger was, for many years, a professor at the Eastman School of Music, where his main post was director of the Eastman Wind Ensemble. In that position, Hunsberger did a lot of important work to advance not just that college’s Wind Ensemble, but wind ensembles in general (and their larger cousin groups, the symphonic or concert band), as ensembles for serious music. Wind ensemble music has for many years had a “student music” stigma, or been mostly limited to marches and orchestral transcriptions. People like Donald Hunsberger, though, made a more serious approach to music making for large wind groups.

Hunsberger died the other day, aged 91, after a long life of conducting, composition, arranging, teaching, and recording.

This piece, Quiet City by Aaron Copland, is a suite culled from incidental music Copland wrote for a play of the same title by Irwin Shaw. The play, about a man who has renounced his dreams and is beginning to go mad, was apparently a flop in 1939 and is pretty much only remembered now for being the inspiration of this Copland piece. One scene involves the hero imagining hearing a trumpet playing in the distance as he wanders the lonely city, and it’s that sound which Copland captures so well here. To me, Quiet City sounds like the musical equivalent of an Edward Hopper painting.

Donald Hunsberger arranged Copland’s work, originally for orchestra, for the Eastman Wind Ensemble and recorded it with Wynton Marsalis playing the solo trumpet part. It’s as curiously austere and effective as the original work. Donald Hunsberger was a great musician, and if his name seems obscure, that’s only because for some reason our classical music culture has long undervalued the wind-only ensembles in performance.

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