UNL Wind Ensemble to premiere Kevin Day concerto at March 30 concert

Left: Kevin Day. Photo by Sara Bill Photography/Karen Cubides Agency. Right: Steven Cohen. Photo by Aleksandr Karjaka.
Left: Kevin Day. Photo by Sara Bill Photography/Karen Cubides Agency. Right: Steven Cohen. Photo by Aleksandr Karjaka.

The University of Nebraska–Lincoln Wind Ensemble will premiere composer Kevin Day’s “Windborne,” a concerto for horn commissioned by Glenn Korff School of Music alumnus Steven Cohen (B.A. 2014; M.M. 2015).

The piece will premiere at the Wind Ensemble concert on Wednesday, March 30 at 7:30 p.m. in Kimball Recital Hall. The concert is free and open to the public. It will also be livestreamed. Visit https://music.unl.edu/webcasts the day of the performance for the link.

It will also be performed at the College Band Directors National Association (CBDNA) North Central Division Conference in April at the University of Wisconsin, as part of the Wind Ensemble’s invitation to perform there.

“The College Band Directors National Association was founded in the 1940s, and it came together at a time when enough college programs had been popping up around the country and a new kind of energy was coming in,” said Carolyn Barber, Ron and Carol Cope Professor and Director of Bands and director of the Wind Ensemble. “It really is the national organization for college bands. And the North Central District encompasses most of the Big Ten. It’s the historical centerpiece for bands in the United States.”

Cohen is excited about performing at the convention.

“I’m excited because it’s a wonderful opportunity and feel honored to be able to solo at CBDNA, but I’m actually really excited for Kevin,” he said. “I also have friends and colleagues who are faculty at other universities who are going to be there, so I’m going to get to reconnect with them. It’s going to be an event of connection and collaboration, which I think is something that is so needed, especially at this time with everything going on in the world.”

Barber said it is customary for invited bands to premiere a new piece at the convention.

“It’s like a potluck supper. Each group brings a new piece, and that’s how we grow the literature. I thought this is perfect, we’ll put this piece on the program there,” she said.

Miami-based composer Day has emerged as one of the leading young voices in the world of music composition today. His music ranges from powerfully introspective to joyous exuberance. A winner of the BMI Student Composer Award and many other honors, he has composed more than 200 works.

Cohen was introduced to Day’s music when a colleague of his was preparing his “Euphonium Concerto” for performance at a regional band conference.

“I was just like, ‘This is incredible. Who is this guy?’ Cohen said. “I started doing my own research, and I discovered Kevin and was absolutely enamored by his music. It is truly incredible.”

Cohen, who studied horn at UNL with Professor of Horn and Assistant Director Alan Mattingly, has been heard internationally as a solo, orchestral, Broadway and chamber musician. Hailing from New York, he is in demand as a soloist and is a proponent for the creation of new music. He is currently pursuing an M.B.A. from the UNL College of Business.

Cohen has commissioned and premiered more than 25 works from a collective of composers. He commissioned Day to write this piece for horn and wind ensemble.

“It was question of doing it for horn and orchestra or horn and wind ensemble,” Cohen said. “One of the great things about Kevin is he writes eloquently for both ensembles. But there are so many concertos out there for horn and orchestra. I felt this piece was fresh and needed for the compliment of horn and wind ensemble.”

Cohen said “Windborne” is an “absolute adventure.”

“It’s a journey unlike I could have imagined, yet it’s everything I could have wished for,” he said. “The piece is based on a relative of Kevin’s who was an aeronautical engineer and worked for the Rockwell International Space Shuttle Program. It’s the journey of flight all through a concerto, and it’s absolutely incredible. It’s a very, very challenging work, and it’s a very exciting work. It’s something that gets stuck in your head, which I think is fantastic. And it just has these moments that are truly transcendent.”

Barber said its title, “Windborne,” is a perfect name for the piece.

“It really is because it seems to fly,” she said. “It has different qualities like a fighter jet, zooming around, and then the second movement is very floaty and ethereal and gentle, and then you come rip-roaring out through the end. It’s going to be a whale of a lot of fun to play. Steven’s got to be having a great time. It’s hard, no doubt. Kevin seems to have taken the horn as totally available, no limitations, and it has tremendous momentum. That’s certainly the way Steven plays, so that’s a good combination between composer and soloist, and I hope band once we have a chance to put it together.”

Cohen is looking forward to returning to UNL to perform the piece with the Wind Ensemble, both in Lincoln and at the conference in April.

“When the concerto is premiered, it will be over two years since my last public live performance. I’ve done things virtually, but nothing can replace having a live audience. I’m excited to be able to engage with, first and foremost, a generation of students that I’m removed from. To be able to share not just this piece, but my experience at UNL and bringing together something like this is something I feel extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to do.”

Cohen frequently champions new music.

“There are a lot of composers out there who need to have their voices heard through their music,” he said. “I think that a lot of times the classical music world gets stuck in Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Strauss, etc. While there are incredible contributions in the music world from the baroque, classical, romantic and contemporary eras, the last 10 years or so, especially, has seen such tremendous growth from 21st century composers that I believe musicians should have an obligation to discover new composers and their music. Dr. Barber is a great example of that. She really works hard to program diverse concerts with a collective of composers from different eras with themes. That’s one of the things I took away from my time at UNL is showing how diverse a program can be from a unique vantage point.”

Also included on the Wind Ensemble’s program will be Gustav Holst’s “A Fugal Overture,” arranged by Robert Ponto; Jennifer Jolley’s “March!”; and Ira Hearshen’s “Symphony on Themes of John Philip Sousa.”

The Wind Ensemble is the university’s premier concert band.

“It was designed to be, in Frederick Fennell’s words, [the creator of the wind ensemble concept] ‘a flexible sound resource’ so that a composer could write anything they want, and the wind ensemble would be designed in such a way that if we need a few more of this instrument or a few less of this instrument, we can be flexible” she said. “Whereas a symphonic band is generally thought of as a set instrumentation, the wind ensemble tends to be the group that does more of the commissioning and more of the new music because of that flexibility.”

Barber is looking forward to having Cohen and Day work with the Wind Ensemble.

“I think it’s going to be ball,” she said. “First, having the composer in a room is a hoot because everybody sits up straighter. Of course, you hope the composer likes the work you’re doing, but I’m also looking forward to the conversations.”

She is grateful for the support to bring this project to fruition.

“Big thanks to Steven for the idea, and Kevin, of course, for all the work he’s doing, and Dr. Sergio Ruiz for the funding support,” Barber said. “It really is a team effort to make it work out, and we get to reap the benefits.”

“It’s truly a musical adventure that is thrilling and emotional and incredible,” Cohen said.