Husband-and-wife conductor-soloist combinations are rare in the musical world. That is one reason why Saturday’s season opener by the Tacoma Concert Band at the Pantages is so special. John Falskow, music chair at Tacoma Community College, will be guest conducting, while the clarinet soloist will be his wife of 16 years, Cindy Renander.
Add in the fact that this marks the first time the 32-year-old band has had a guest conduct an entire concert, plus a dance-inspired program that includes Sousa and Bjrk, and you have a concert to remember.
“It’s no different to playing with anyone else,” Falskow said of the front-of-stage relationship with Renander. “You’d say, ‘Hey, that tempo’s too slow,’ or ‘Play louder.’ It’s a two-way interchange. Of course we agree on a lot of things beforehand, like tempo and stylistic things ... the difference is that we can have those conversations at 11 p.m. after brushing our teeth.”
Falskow and Renander, like many local wind and brass professionals, go a long way back with the Tacoma Concert Band. They played in the band in the 1990s after their undergraduate studies (Falskow also is a trumpeter). Lately, Renander occasionally has been called in to play bass or E-flat clarinet, and Falskow has subbed as conductor for founding director Robert Musser in rehearsals.
“We’ve grown up with it,” Falskow says.
So when Musser found he had a schedule conflict with the band’s first concert of the season, he asked Falskow to conduct the whole thing. Brainstorming program ideas, Musser asked whether Renander would like to be the evening’s soloist.
It’s a situation that is sometimes ethically fraught. Both solo and conductor appearances can make a huge difference to a musician’s career, and while people recognize that established conductor-soloist partnerships can be musically profound (think Richard Bonynge and soprano Dame Joan Sutherland), such a partnership always raises questions of favoritism.
“We try to be careful,” Falskow explains. “We’re both in the same musical community, but we try to be sensitive. Cindy doesn’t go ’round as my conducting agent. But when Bob suggested her, I thought, ‘Great!’”
The pair have done the partnership a few other times: Renander played a clarinet concerto with the Tacoma Community College concert band a few years ago, and she has been a soloist with Brass Unlimited, both groups Falskow directs.
They’ve gotten the musical relationship down to a fine art.
“We both try to respect the rehearsal,” Falskow says. “No one’s there for a big argument; we just want to play.”
Adds Renander: “We’re free to be more direct (with each other), but he’s so clean and direct, there isn’t much to say in rehearsal.”
But there’s room for a joke. When Renander, who’s sitting in the band for the second half to play the tricky E-flat solos in Adam Gorb’s “Yiddish Dances,” showed up halfway through a rehearsal (by design) and was hit first up with an incredibly difficult opening cadenza, she yelped in surprise.
“I said, ‘That’s what my wife gets for showing up late,’” Falskow jokes.
The other unusual part of Saturday’s program is the music. Inspired by dance rhythms, the program goes around the world to highlight some unusual dynamic pieces. Renander’s solo piece, the “Hillandale Waltzes,” was written by Victor Babin in 1947 as a commission for a patron who loved the classical composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel. A theme by Hummel traverses a set of variations that eschew the usual add-more-and-fast-notes tradition, says Falskow, instead meandering over moods that go from elegant to passionate to sad.
Gorb’s “Yiddish Dances” are also an unusual take on tradition, combining classical concert band material with Klezmer in a boisterous six-part suite. Other contemporary compositions include “Graceful Ghost Rag” by Seattle-born composer William Bolcom, selections from the musical “Chicago” and the overture from the film “Dancer in the Dark” by Icelandic singer-songwriter Bjrk.
From the 20th century come dance-inspired pieces by Shostakovich (his Russian “Folk Dances”), “Danza Final (Malambo)” from the ballet “Estancia” by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera and the mysterious “Incantation and Dance” by John Barnes Chance.
Finally, there’s Sousa — though not exactly what you’d expect. The “Presidential Polonaise” was written for President Chester Arthur as a piece to keep guests moving through White House receiving lines. Arthur didn’t like “Hail to the Chief,” but the tradition swung back that way, leaving Sousa’s rather pompous, waltzy tune to be resurrected at odd moments.
“People get used to concert bands being just halftime entertainment or playing Sousa,” Falskow says. “But this is more contemporary. It’s really brilliant.”
Meanwhile, Falskow and Renander are pleased to be playing at the helm of the community band they’ve known for so long.
“It’s a community group, but it’s very professional, very organized, with many professional players,” Falskow says. “It just happens that they volunteer (their time). It’s a testament to Bob Musser.” Dance Rhythms
Who: Tacoma Concert Band with guest conductor John Falskow and clarinetist Cindy Renander
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Pantages Theater, 901 Broadway, Tacoma
Tickets: $16, $22, $28, $34thenewstribune.com