Wind ensemble time

A wind ensemble is a curious thing. According to Fraser Linklater, director of the University of Manitoba Wind Ensemble, the wind band creates an opportunity for listeners to hear familiar compositions in a different context.

Unlike orchestras, wind ensembles exist primarily in universities and the military.
“There’s not really a comparable thing in wind ensembles to what there is in the orchestra,” said Linklater. However, as Linklater explained, “there are a very few professional groups, one of them being the Tokyo Kosei ensemble.”

Because of this, some composers hesitate to write pieces for a wind band. “[Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer] John Corigliano was approached by a university band director in Texas — University of Texas at Austin — and asked if he would write a large work for wind band,” said Linklater, “which he was a little uncertain of, as a lot of people are, because they’re busy with other things and they’re not sure about wind band. But he was prevailed upon to write something, which he did, for a Carnegie Hall debut. Speaking about this afterwards, he was extremely excited about writing for wind band.”

According to Linklater, one of the reasons that Corigliano was enthusiastic about writing for wind band was the non-profit nature of these ensembles. “Orchestras are there to maintain a bottom line and they don’t get paid for rehearsals,” he said. “Financially, it’s expedient for them to do more performing and less rehearsing. Which means it’s also expedient for them to perform and rehearse pieces that are already in a certain style and that they’re comfortable with.”

“In John Corigliano’s experience, writing a new music piece for orchestra, where the players are not familiar with the style, either they won’t do it, because it’s going to take too much rehearsal time, or they’ll do it, but they’ll do kind of a rush job on it. Writing a wind ensemble piece, he found, for university students, they had the time to rehearse and to work it out in a very detailed way.”

Wind ensemble performances are not limited to pieces composed for wind ensemble, though. Orchestral compositions are frequently adapted for a wind ensemble. “Over the years,” Linklater said, “players have always tried to transfer pieces that they liked that were written for another medium into something that they can use. The wind band has been particularly using other people’s material for that because traditionally we haven’t had a ton of things of our own to play.”

This is the case with some works by American composer Aaron Copland. “‘The Fanfare for the Common Man’ was written for a brass and percussion section,” said Linklater, “so you could say it’s a wind band piece. We’re doing three of his Old American Songs; [ . . . ] those were written originally for voice and piano. Copland reworked them for a small orchestra, and someone has transcribed that to work for a small chamber wind group, and that’s what we’re doing — along with a singer.”

Sometimes, as in the case of the Appalachian Spring adaptation, which the university’s wind ensemble will play Nov. 26, the original composition is quite different from what ends up being played. Copland wrote the piece for a 13-instrument band to play in the American Library of Congress. He later reworked it for an orchestra, and then for wind band, under the title “Variations on a Shaker Melody.” Linklater added to this piece to create what the band will play this Friday. “What I’ve done is I’ve transcribed a bunch of the other bits of Appalachian Spring to sort of dovetail into what Copland had arranged himself for wind band.”

Corigliano will visit Winnipeg this February for the New Music Festival. “We’re doing the Canadian premiere of this big piece that he was so excited to write, that he’s so big on. It’s called Circus Maximus and it’s for a large wind ensemble, so what’s happening for that is the winds, brass and percussion of the Winnipeg Symphony will form a core of people, and then University of Manitoba music students are added into that, playing alongside their teachers, as it were.”

The University of Manitoba Wind Ensemble plays Nov. 26 at Jubilee Place, Nov. 28 at Eva Clare Hall and three more times this season. Visit for more information.