Santa Monica Colleges' Wind Ensemble Makes Sparkling Season Debut

View past a xylophone as members of Santa Monica College’s Wind Ensemble rehearse for an  upcoming performance, SMC Performing Arts Center, Santa Monica, Calif., September 24,  2018. (Julie Dole/ Corsair Staff)

View past a xylophone as members of Santa Monica College’s Wind Ensemble rehearse for an

upcoming performance, SMC Performing Arts Center, Santa Monica, Calif., September 24,

2018. (Julie Dole/ Corsair Staff)

It was 4 o’clock on a Sunday when I left behind a gorgeous, sunny afternoon to walk into the Broad Stage to experience a performance by the Santa Monica College Wind Ensemble, on October 7. It was well worth the trade.

I had visited the Wind Ensemble a few weeks before, taking photos before their rehearsal at the SMC Performing Arts Center. I’d never heard a wind ensemble play, but I noticed they had a huge percussion section, a vibraphone, xylophone, chimes, and a slew of wind and brass instruments - not a violin in sight. As a beginner musician myself, I wondered how they’d sound. 

Conductor Kevin McKeown had an hour-long program of sparkling melodies planned, which turned out to be a welcome break from the endlessly numbing news cycles of the outside world.

The size and impressive acoustics of the Eli and Edythe Broad Stage suited the group well. Even from a last-row balcony seat, their alternately nuanced and dynamic performance could leave listeners feeling as if they starred in a movie with an amazing soundtrack.

The Ensemble ably navigated their opening piece, Overture for Band, by Charles Carter, which ranged from rousing to pensive, with urban, Copland-esque sections mid-piece.

Next came Martin Ellerby’s engaging four-part Paris Sketches, each tune a bright, fresh musical vignette, collectively evoking the feel of four famous places in that city: waking up in the quintessential Parisian neighborhood of Saint-Germain-des-Pres; rambling through the carnivalesque Pigalle neighborhood of Picasso and Moulin-Rouge fame; the thoughtful quietude of the Pere Lachaise cemetery, last stop for Chopin and Jim Morrison; and finally the glistening bustle of Les Hailes, a modern Parisian shopping district.

The Ensemble’s performance of these Sketches ranged from enthusiastic, to plaintive, to playful - and together with expert execution of varied motifs and themes, gave listeners a lively trip to France. 

Next came a John Mackey piece, This Cruel Moon. Conductor McKeown explained that Homer’s Odessey had inspired the work, and the piece rolled and crested as waves might, along ancient boats and cliffs. This pensive piece highlighted the best of the show’s woodwind and flute work, and could easily accompany an Oscar-worthy movie scene.

Finally, the famously exotic strains of Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave ushered listeners into the last act of the show. This is where the musicians' work and McKeown’s conducting really shone. Their drums and cymbals underscored the work's grand and epic nature; their performance suggesting the perfect soundtrack to a Hollywood Bowl screening of Cleopatra from almost any era - preferably with fireworks.

For those needing a break from reality, and who would like to experience a first-rate orchestra - one whose brass and percussion will keep you wide awake and appreciative throughout the show - the Ensemble’s next performance is will feature works by notable female composers, and will include Asian flutes and Taiko drums. Performing Sunday, November 18, 2018 at 4 p.m. at the Broad Stage, SMC Performing Arts Center, 1310 11th St, in Santa Monica. Most tickets are $10.00. Phone: (310) 434-4000