Ryan Chartrand

For more than 30 years, the 60-piece Cal Poly Wind Ensemble has performed in some of the most famous venues in four continents.

Despite being made up of mostly non-music majors, the group has earned an international reputation for music excellence and is continuously invited to play at renowned conventions and festivals throughout the world.

William Johnson, professor of music and conductor of the ensemble, said the wind ensemble constantly researches ways to create a more innovative sound and often incorporates nontraditional instruments into its pieces.

The piece “Concerto for Violin” features a violin, harp, pad bass and even synthesizers, which some traditionalists would consider blasphemous.

“We’re different than what people normally would associate with a school band or military band. Today’s composers are creating new sounds and breaking away from a normal sound.

“It makes it more entertaining and more interesting,” said Johnson, who has been at Cal Poly since 1966.

Music sophomore Rory Fratkin, who plays bassoon for the ensemble, said though he has appreciation for the traditional sound of a wind ensemble, he enjoys performing Cal Poly’s more contemporary pieces.

“The music written these days is really experimental and just gets really creative. Some beautiful compositions have been written over the last decade that I love. That’s definitely something I like better about our group,” Fratkin said.

Johnson quickly pointed out that the Cal Poly Wind Ensemble isn’t as edgy as those that might be heard in New York or Chicago, but said he tries to introduce audiences to new sounds with the pieces he chooses.

“We’re not completely over the top. I want people to come to our next concert. But that’s the job of any ensemble. We don’t want to give them what they want all the time; we want to stretch them a little bit,” Johnson said.

Playing modern pieces usually allows the band to communicate and receive suggestions from the original composer, an advantage Johnson said helps the music sound more authentic. There is also an element of originality to the songs the ensemble plays.

“There’s a balance. A composer puts music on a page and you try to find out what they had in mind and try to be faithful to that. But there are some composers where I think I can interpret music better than they can,” Johnson said.

This summer, the ensemble joined the Cal Poly Choir for a 16-day tour through Europe that went through Hungary, Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic.

“It was an incredible experience. We played in some unbelievable cathedrals and churches that were just huge and had great acoustics. Just to play there instead of a normal concert hall was so different and an incredible experience,” Fratkin said.

The groups performed the cornerstone piece of the tour, “Requiem,” a 50-minute epic inspired by the 1956 Hungarian uprising against the Soviet Union, to a packed concert hall in Budapest, Hungary. It was the first time the piece had been played in 10 years.

The piece’s original composer, Frigyes Hidas, was in the audience. Fratkin, who could see him seated in the second row as the piece was played, said the composer remained expressionless throughout the piece but came up to the thank both groups after the song ended.

“Even though he wasn’t able to talk to us, you can tell it meant a lot to him,” Fratkin said.

Johnson said the wind ensemble probably won’t get out on another tour for a few years, but the group has some big dates scheduled for next year.

The ensemble will perform at the Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center March 7, 8 and 9.

It will be hosting the American Bandmaster’s Association Convention at this time.

“This is the biggest honor. It’s the most prestigious bandmasters association. It’s an honor to host it and perform for it,” Johnson said.

The ensemble will also perform an Open House concert on April 21 and a spring concert on June 9, both in the PAC. For more information, check out www.pacslo.org.

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