Wind Ensemble returns to live performances with a multicultural program

Tuesday night’s performance will feature award-winning work from the ensemble’s Mexican/United States Composition Competition.

by Mei Xu and Alison Sasaki | 11/2/21 2:05am

Source: Courtesy of Ben DeFlorio

This evening at the Hopkins Center for the Arts, the Dartmouth College Wind Ensemble will have its first in-person performance since the start of the pandemic. The 45-member ensemble, conducted by director Brian Messier, will perform a diverse program with repertoire spanning from Hanover to Japan to the border town of Roma, Texas. 

The performance will begin with “Sparkleberry” by Yukiko Nishimura, a Japanese composer who was inspired by a perennial evergreen tree while embarking on a private musical study at the University of Miami. Harmonically, the different elements of the song articulate the distinct elements of the tree: bright berries, shiny leaves, and delicate flowers. 

The DCWE will follow by playing “Second Suite in F” by Gustav Holst. A classic in core repertoire works, Holst’s piece is based entirely on English folk music. It is composed of four movements and is perhaps the most well known in the program.

Following an intermission, the ensemble will perform “The Dove in the Ash Grove” by Keane Southard, who will be a resident at the concert on Tuesday. The composition fuses two Welsh folk songs — “The Dove” and “The Ash Grove.”

The concert will end with “Roma” by Valerie Coleman. An ode to the town of Roma situated on the U.S.-Mexico border, the piece is representative of the collective experiences of the Roma people.

“[In Roma], there are actually quite a few migrant students who cross the border every day to go to high school, and [Coleman] composed the work with the community in Roma [in mind],” said Messier. 

In many ways, this program is different from those of previous DCWE performances. Most visibly, it showcases the work of composers from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds — a deliberate choice by Messier and his students, who are on a mission to expand concert band repertoire beyond its traditional focus on Western compositions. 

“[Concert band] is a field that has been, as with many fields, very white male-dominated, both in terms of the directors, the composers [and] the participants,” said Messier. “[This program] covers a lot of different themes… bringing in repertoire that is from various cultures, has gender diversity, cultural diversity.”

On par with this initiative to bring in composers of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, since Jan. 1, 2020, Messier and his students have been collecting repertoire works from Mexican composers through the ensemble’s Mexican/United States Composition Competition. The competition started when Messier discovered a lack of authentic Mexican repertoire to perform on DCWE’s tour that was scheduled for Spring 2021.

“We started a competition for U.S. and Mexican composers. We ended up getting 210 submissions from 48 Mexican composers. So, where previously I couldn't find any Mexican works, now I have 48 Mexican works for wind ensemble,” said Messier. 

Despite the cancellation of the tour due to the pandemic, it was important for the DCWE to continue to build relationships with Mexican musicians and highlight the works of underrepresented composers. For Messier and the DCWE, the culmination of their efforts will come into play on Tuesday night with their performance of “The Dove in the Ashgrove,” the competition’s award winning piece, and “Roma,” the first work that will be played from the Mexican Repertoire Initiative. 

For many of the DCWE student performers, this is their first time playing non-Western compositions. Ramsey Ash ’24 is one of those students. Ash played saxophone and clarinet throughout middle school and high school. He joined the DCWE his freshman year at Dartmouth and will be playing E flat clarinet for the Tuesday performance. 

Before coming to Dartmouth, Ash was rarely exposed to compositions outside of traditional Western repertoire, he said. 

“98% of the pieces I’ve played have been from white and European men who wrote them 300 years ago,” said Ash. “…There’s something to be said about the classical pieces, the origins of the music, and the instruments that we love; [music is] an art, but it’s [also a] mechanism that can bring about social change,” said Ash.

Ash is excited to not only resume in-person performances on Tuesday night, but he is also proud to be part of  a movement dedicated to expanding cultural awareness in music.

“I feel a responsibility as someone at a point of privilege… in a collegiate ensemble at Dartmouth College,” he said. “We have all [this] money, resources, we can, to an extent, play whatever we want… So there is… this sort of obligation to think about how we can better raise these composers, these voices, these ideas, these movements, in ways that maybe we haven’t in the past.”

Neo Cai ’25 will attend Tuesday’s performance to support his friend, Catherine Liao ’25, who plays clarinet for the DCWE. This will be his first time attending a concert band performance at Dartmouth and his first time hearing Mexican repertoire performed by a wind ensemble.

“I’m hoping to get chills down my spine and get into some music that I have not heard before,” said Cai.

For the members of the DCWE, this performance is also a celebration of their ensemble being able to perform to a live audience again. Further, while the DCWE once relied on community and other professional performers to fill in the gaps of student engagement, this fall, it is primarily a student-based ensemble. 

“I'm really proud of all the elements… It’s the diversity of this one program, where we're going with the Mexican repertoire initiative, and the kind of student engagement of the ensemble itself,” explained Messier. “I’m shocked and proud at the level of student engagement [...] at a time when it would have been so easy for people to disengage. For everyone to be here, to have such unprecedented student participation in the DCWE is really, really remarkable.”

Chase Harvey ’25, who has played tuba since middle school, hopes to rebuild the same sense of community that concert performances brought prior to the pandemic. 

“We just want people to enjoy concerts again,” said Harvey “Inside a space where we all can actually play complicated music together — it’s so nice. So we just want people to kind of appreciate that.”