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Last week’s Midwest adventures featured back to back performances of OK Feel Good, in both savory flavors. And next week I visit Georgia State University for Robert Ambrose and his ensemble’s OK Feel Good, and by my count that makes three. In a row. If I could dance right now I would. In 7/16.

The first OKFG cropped up in Springfield Missouri, where the good Drs. Christopher Koch and Carlyle Sharpe inaugurated a fantastic new music ensemble (I maintain they make the world a slightly better place) out of Drury University called Ensemble 21. Christopher obviously put serious sweat and effort into rehearsing the piece, and it showed—it was a tight groovy performance, and the sextet players were terrific. Carlyle (call him “D-flat“, he loves it) was the main force in bringing me in for the performance—an old friend from BU, he was my first theory and ear training teacher, and unofficial composer mentor. The trip gave us a chance to catch up on each other’s music, and so I spent a couple days immersing myself in his recent chamber and orchestra works, but especially his gorgeous choral anthems, the kind of stuff that puts me right back in the arms of all those tweed-wearing Victorian men inside big Anglican churches … Bridge, Parry, Harris, Stanford, Vaughn Williams. Indeed it was Carlyle, along with the Voice and Opera Professor at Drury, Dr. Stephen Bomgardner, who, 16 years ago when I declared that I didn’t think I liked Benjamin Britten (but probably hadn’t heard any), sat me down in a room with the Britten-Pears recording of The War Requiem along with a full score, and closed the door. When I emerged, I was a zealous convert, and so blame/credit for my much of my musical-taste education should be directed in their direction.

While in Springfield I also got to meet one of Carlyle’s students, Andrew Paul Jackson (a good, 3-name composer name), who shared the program with us on the E21 concert. This young pup is seriously talented—I was floored by his septet, A Tout le Monde un Emigre. The piece is absolutely lovely, paced well and beautifully colored, and I look forward to more from him. He’s off to get a dash of grad-school seasoning, so watch out for his stuff, and if you’ve got a septet in the meantime, play that piece, ’cause it’s a stunner.

The very next morning I had to rush up to KU, but not before getting a speeding ticket in my Texas-tagged rental SUV (clearly I deserved it) to join the fun in The NeXt Festival, a Do put together by Maestro John Lynch and the University of Kansas. Dr. Lynch’s design for the festival was simple enough: bring in four brilliant guys and play their stuff really really well. Since the other guys in the quartet were John Mackey, Carter Pann, and Joel Puckett, let’s designate me Brilliant by Association and give John L the benefit of the doubt for inviting me. Indeed, we all had a blast with the Maestro, the KU GA’s (I’m betting JM’s photo blog will provide the necessary 1000 words), and the fantastic wind ensemble, which played the BeJeebus out of everyone’s pieces.

JL also set us up for a pre-game discussion, complete with pre-poured glasses of water, table draping, and name cards, moderated quite skillfully by KU’s Jake Wallace (a conductor of As the scent of spring rain… from his days at Baylor). I have to admit at harboring some skepticism that the format would be any more exciting or illuminating than that kind of thing usually is, that is, kind of like repeatedly smashing a hammer over one’s head. But it turned out to be quite fun, and we rolled with it and had a great time up there pontificating. It even felt a bit like I was channelling the expert Panel Expert, for which I’m hoping I get a free pass.

Carter’s piece, a new one called The Wrangler: Cowboy Dances, is all ingenious craft and invention. While the four of us sat in the audience during the dress, following along with the score, I’m pretty sure Mackey and Joel and I were all wondering how we could beat the skill and talent out of Carter as to maybe leave some for the rest of us. Someone tell him to stop it. I have a career to think of here.

I’ve been hearing about Joel’s piece Ping, Pang, Pong for a while now, but hadn’t yet heard it, so at the performance I was astounded. This piece goes deep, and its expert explorations into the opera overture in general, and Turandot specifically, are meticulous and grand—the piece totally clicked for me. One can probably tell, I dig that kind of intense style-immersion. Joel has a new fan.

And simply put, Mackey’s new work Turbine is his best piece to date. I am giddy over this thing. It’s exciting, it’s smart, it’s sexy, and it’s louder than you can possibly imagine. Until last Sunday, Pines of Rome was the reigning Loudest. Piece. Ever. Well, we have a new contender, and it’s a glorious noise. I knew it was good when I was getting sneak peaks at the score and midi realizations a year ago, but now after finally hearing it live, the piece has officially made me want to climb into a hole and give up. But it does forward my theory that pieces we all write for band end up being better than the transcriptions we do of our old stuff…

The KU Wind Ensemble is an amazing group—one hears about their Mojo, but I kind of had no idea. And I love what John L does with OKFG—the performance had the energy of a steamroller, yet the balance was tasteful and smart, the articulations swinging, and all the colors shined like a laser. A wonderful performance, and the best possible way to hear the piece live again after 2 years. A big thanks to John, the Ensemble, Amy, Jake, all the GA’s there in Lawrence for their generosity and excitement. That was a fun day. More of those, please.

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