2005 European Championships - Extreme Make-Over - Set Test Piece


4BR has been listening to this year's cracking new test piece from the pen of Johan de Meij, Extreme Make-Over - Metamorphosis on a Theme of Tchaikovsky.

Johan de MeijThis is a cracker of a test piece. Over the years the European Championships has had its fair share of the good, the bad and the downright awful when it comes to the set pieces it has posed for the bands to play, but this is certainly one that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as ‘St. Magnus' and ‘Montreux Wind Dances' of the pieces in recent years that have been of the top most quality.

The piece itself is inspired by a number of musical references from the compositional output of the great Russian – most notably the Andante Cantabile (the second movement) of his String Quartet No 1 in D, Opus 11, which was written in 1871) – the one that brought tears to the eyes of Tolstoy when he heard it played in 1876.

Johan de Meij is an extremely intelligent and thoughtful composer of note, who has written many fine original compositions, symphonic transcriptions and arrangements of film scores and musicals. He has won a number of international prizes and is recognised both in his home country and abroad as a composer of distinction. ‘Extreme Makeover' reveals itself to be a work of at times inspired originality.

The piece itself is about 16 and a half minutes long and basically falls into a number of clearly defined sections. It is not however a theme and variations – not by any stretch of the imagination.

As the title suggests the work develops in almost chameleon like forms from the kernel of the first four notes of the opening stanza.

The opening section is set as a simple quartet, played (and marked semplice) by two solo cornets, a horn and euphonium. It is marked Andante Cantabile (as befits the original) and could easily win or lose the contest for any band if approached in the wrong manner. Quartet playing is something of a lost art, and playing with an intuitive sense of balance and with recognition of the main thematic line is the key. The section lasts for some 50 bars and ends in what is the first metamorphosis – the use of note clusters that make up all the notes in the theme in a surreal fade out – like a lasting echo when the pedal of a pianoforte is depressed and left to ring.

There then follows an extended build up when the sense of change is palpable (entries are marked ppp, but sense of measured heart beat is audible). Again and again little motifs and themes are heard and the detail in the writing is immense. The percussion section will have its hands full from very nearly the word go (up to five players or more may be needed at any one time), and the timpanist gets the chance to shine at figure 154 with a metamorphosis of the original theme.

The bass end then start the build again – almost imperceptibly to start before it explodes into a huge climatic driven theme which will tax the lips of the players (especially the top end and soprano) to the full.

This powerful stuff – almost everyone is playing at either forte or fortissimo, before a short respite is created with the entry of the trombones at figure 234. Here lightness returns, but with complex undercurrents in the horns and baritones.  This soon gives way to more heavy blowing though – again the detail is immense with markings in dynamics and articulation that only the very best bands will make apparent. Some of the technical writing is frightening in its difficulty and no one is spared.

Again the volume throughout is high, so the key may well be to play it just below maximum as to create the effects that are written clearly into the score.  Between 278 and 300 in particular there is some brilliant, almost mathematical technical work. Bar 292 to 300 will be a real point of reference – triplets in groups of four that make for a quite breathtaking effect. It ends with a quote from Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony, before we come to what will be a section of writing that will surely be talked about for years to come.

This is where the cornet and horn players take to the bottle to create a gamelan effect which sounds like a small fairground organ in timbre. It is quite mesmerising though to listen to with the start sounding very much like the evocative Laurie Anderson ‘O Superman' single.

It does however go on a bit, and there is the thought that it is used in a way to give the ragged lips of the players a bit of a rest before they are asked for more pain in the final section of the work. In fact this section takes close on three minutes to play, but the effect can be spectacularly beautiful. There is use of dynamic contrast as well as articulation nuance whilst the need for balance and tuning is paramount.

Underscoring this all is an extended Marimba solo which becomes more and more complex as it heads to its conclusion and is joined finally by the xylophone and the remaining brass players. It is certainly something different, but something that really does work well.

This then leads into the final section of the work – which starts as a paroxysmal fugue in the bass, and which derives from the very first four notes of the piece. However, the metamorphosis quickens as we progress and the traditional fugue effect of added subjects becomes mixed. The overall texture completely changes as individual lines become lost and reappear in different forms, times and settings, and complex rhythmic patterns emerge from what is seemingly musical chaos. It is a brilliant idea that comes startlingly to life.

The build to the final section will tax bands to the full (and contains a subtle key change or does it?) and will demand the greatest amounts of stamina as well as musicality to make come off. Finally, at 561 we come to final climax with a subtle little echo of the 1812 Overture underscored in the 3rd cornet and flugel and with the bells peeling.  It ends with discordance and a final metamorphosis to the last immense chord that closes a work of rare brilliance.

‘Extreme Makeover' not a perfect work by any means and will not appeal to everyone. The middle section is a tad overlong and can be seen as an attempt to rest the players before the final onslaught. It is however a work of real beauty and elegance allied to some amazingly complex technical writing.

We think it is a fine piece. Congratulations are therefore warranted to the organisers and especially the composer for giving us another European test piece that deserves greater exposure than just this single weekend. 

Johan de Meij

Johan de Meij (Born in Voorburg, 1953) studied trombone and conducting at the Royal Conservatory of Music at The Hague and has earned international fame as a composer and arranger.

His catalogue consists of original compositions, symphonic transcriptions and arrangements of film scores and musicals.

The Symphony no. 1 The Lord of the Rings, based on Tolkien's best-seller novels of the same name, was his first substantial composition for symphonic band and received the prestigious Sudler Composition Award in 1989. In 2001, the orchestral version was premiered by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.

His other larger compositions, such as Symphony no. 2 The Big Apple T- Bone Concerto (for trombone and wind orchestra) and Casanova (for violoncello and wind orchestra) are also on the repertoire of the better bands all over the world. Casanova was awarded the First Prize at the International Composition Competition of Corciano [Italy] in 1999, and a year later, De Meij won the Oman International Composition Prize with The Red Tower.

Besides composing, Johan de Meij is also very active in various musical fields. He serves as trombonist with the Orchestra De Volharding (The Perseverance), The Amsterdam Wind Orchestra and as a regular substitute with the Radio Chamber Orchestra. He is much in demand as a guest conductor: he conducted concerts and seminars in almost all European countries, in Japan, Singapore, Brazil and the United States.


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