Alfred Reed is the most frequently performed composer and arranger of music for wind bands and orchestras in the world — and he’s enormously popular here in Japan. The Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra alone has recorded no less than 18 CDs of his compositions.
As a teenager, Reed began his professional career playing trumpet at resort hotels in New York’s Catskill Mountains. At 23, he drew notice when his “Russian Christmas Music” was broadcast on NBC Radio, and the piece soon became a standard number in the wind repertoire. And all this before the composer started his studies at Julliard.
Now 82, Reed remains a prolific composer and vigorous conductor. He has enjoyed a lengthy affiliation with the Senzoku Gakuen Wind Orchestra, and on June 17 he will lead them in a concert.
This Tokyo program surveys his brilliant output, beginning with a stirring opening overture titled “Viva Musica!” — a piece commissioned by the renowned VanderCook College of Music in Chicago, the only conservatory in the world dedicated solely to training music teachers.
Speaking in a recent interview, Reed reflected on “Viva Musica!,” which premiered in 1983.
“There have been a great many testimonials to the joy of hearing music and making music,” he said, “but not so many, indeed, if any, to the joy of teaching music.”
That joy, Reed explained, drove his own life and career. He retired from teaching at the University of Miami in 1993. “Viva Musica!” is also a tribute to the Chicago conservatory’s founder: “Professor VanderCook lived for his students. He died poor, but very happy.”
Another piece that will be performed at the concert is “Rahoon.” It takes its inspiration from “She Weeps Over Rahoon,” an early poem by James Joyce. Reed was so affected by the poem that he felt it cried out for a musical setting, so he wrote one for soprano voice and piano accompaniment. Seventeen years later, he reworked the composition into a “full dress” concert solo for clarinet and wind orchestra. It is one of the most moving works in the wind repertoire.
Following this is Reed’s “Symphonic Prelude,” now a standard item in any wind orchestra’s repertoire. It comprises variations on “Black Is the Color of my True Love’s Hair,” an American folk song that is only 10 bars long — about one-third of the length of a contemporary pop tune. Musicologists believe the original melody dates back to the 1760s.
Inserted into an otherwise all-Reed program is a world premiere performance of “Canovaci,” a commission composed for the Senzoku Gakuen Wind Orchestra by Clark McAlister. The title provides a clue to the mood of the piece. The Italian word canovaci is similar in meaning to commedia dell’arte, the stock comedies of Pantaloon, Harlequin and Columbine — and this piece, too, has elements of farce, the improbable and the unexpected.
“The listener never knows what comes next!” said Reed, gleefully.
Reed has fond memories of his days at NBC under Arturo Toscanini, the radio network’s famous music director. Those years weren’t exactly a heyday for new compositions (“Unlike the drama department, Toscanini did not require original music each week,” Reed says), but they were a golden era for the programming of live pop and classical performances. “The NBC Radio Orchestra and music library had a staff of nearly 300; today there are only three music librarians left.”
Reed, though, has brought about something of a renaissance in popularity in his own field — with some help from cinema. Moviegoers who saw the 1996 film “Brassed Off,” based on the true story of Britain’s Grimethorpe Colliery Coal Band, will be familiar with the annual brass band championships held at London’s Crystal Palace.
In 1930, for the 25th anniversary of this contest, Sir Edward Elgar composed a test piece for the top contenders to play. In 1932, he composed a full orchestral version of the piece, and both versions were known as the “Severn Suite.”
That orchestral score went missing for years, only being discovered in 1970 when it “was saved from nearly being incinerated by the BBC,” says Reed. The composer was invited to produce an authorized arrangement for wind orchestra based on the lost score. “Sir Ivor Atkins also produced an arrangement for the organ. Elgar, Atkins . . . it’s good company to be in. I feel honored,” he said.
Reed’s arrangement of the “Severn Suite” will be performed during the Senzoku Gakuen concert.
The English Brass Band movement was first introduced to Japan at the turn of the century. It took firm hold and enjoyed a revival of interest in the postwar years, and the popularity of “Brassed Off” in Japan brought in more audiences in recent years.
It has been Reed’s music that has ensured the continued popularity of brass both in Japan and abroad, and Tokyo audiences are sure to enjoy this rare opportunity to hear the composer conduct his own work.
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