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Conductor Robert Zelickman hopped on the podium and performed an impromptu jig — or was it the twist? With that, he fiddled with the microphone and announced the night’s first selection, “Suite of Seven Dances” from Faust (the ballet) by French composer Charles Gounod. The affable maestro — a jolly, rumpled sort whose lack of pretense belies his serious musicianship — radiated enthusiasm. For their part, the audience — an age-eclectic, casually clad gathering of perhaps 150 — seemed to take to his warmth and energy.

“We have ten rehearsals, and the concert — we do one per quarter — is the culmination of those rehearsals,” said Zelickman, who has conducted the UCSD Wind Ensemble since 1990. “I hope the audience will enjoy the fruits of our labor, but it’s really the rehearsals I stress. That’s where the teaching goes on.”

With that thought in mind, I settled in on a recent Thursday evening, December 3, for the fall quarter’s offering at Mandeville Auditorium, UCSD’s somewhat dated, cavernous 714-seat mainstay.

During the gentle cacophony of the preshow tuning up, I took inventory of the wood-paneled walls, the old-fashioned, crimson stage curtains — the standard accoutrements of a mid-’60s vintage concert hall. As the warm-ups waned, I looked up from the linoleum-tiled floor to watch the ensemble welcome the conductor. Then, the auditorium was suffuse with the strains of a melodic waltz, the first of seven movements punctuated by bright brass and lively percussion. The overall impression was of a pleasant, sentimental approach to the classics — perhaps more “old-timey” and more accessible than symphonic fare.

Throughout the concert, Zelickman conducted with verve, and, at times, near-abandon. During one passage, he swung his arms wildly as if gleefully sweeping a scythe through wheat. The all-French program, made up of compositions penned from roughly 1860 to 1880, continued with two works by Camille Saint-Saëns. The first, “Bacchanale,” from the opera Samson and Delilah, resonated with a Middle Eastern motif filtered through the strainer of 19th-century French sensibilities. Next was “Danse Macabre,” which Zelickman termed a tone poem in the manner of Liszt. Not particularly dark by modernist standards, it allowed the ensemble to showcase the oboes and bassoons, as well as precisely arranged stanzas with flutes alternating with brass. As intermission approached, the ensemble launched into “Cortège de Bacchus” from Léo Delibes’s ballet Slyvia.

Post-intermission began with Jacques Offenbach’s “La Belle Hélène Overture.” Next up was “Funeral March of a Marionette,” a whimsical Gounod piece better known to most as Alfred Hitchcock’s theme. This was followed by another selection whose familiarity — at least among modern-day audiences — can be traced, in part, to the movies: Claude Debussy’s “Claire de Lune,” popularized recently in the teen fave Twilight. The program concluded with Saint-Saëns’s “Marche Militaire Française,” a percussion-infused number reminiscent of — if a bit less stirring than — John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

I asked the conductor, who’s led the band since 1991 (and has taught at UCSD since 1983), how he’d characterize the group to classical music tyros. For example, what exactly is a “wind ensemble”? Sure, it’s got woodwinds — a 17-strong battery of flautists, a 22-member clarinet section, as well as oboes and bassoons. But it also sports a punchy array of brass — saxophones, trumpets, trombones, tuba, and euphonium (more about that later) — and a versatile percussion squad whose weapons range from an enormous bass drum to a dainty triangle. All told, the UCSD Wind Ensemble typically numbers from 60 to 80 players in a given quarter, so it’s a large group — just shy of a symphony.

Zelickman, who also leads a much smaller outfit — the Second Avenue Klezmer Ensemble — explained that the Wind Ensemble is akin to a symphony, minus the strings. He terms it simply as “a concert band,” one that plays not only traditional symphonic pieces transcribed for the stringless but also works composed specifically for the quasi-symphonic organizations that acquired (classical) legitimacy with the advent of Sousa.

Although the UCSD Wind Ensemble exists under the aegis of the UCSD Music Department, it’s not solely the province of UCSD students. While most of the players do emanate from the ranks of UCSD undergraduates and grad students, members from the community have always been a vital part of the mix. According to John Wyman, the band’s arranger, the unifying factor is simply the love of music. No one in the ensemble exemplifies this better than Wyman, who has played the euphonium (a baritone horn resembling a mini-tuba) with the conglomeration since its inception in 1978. Wyman, who first picked up his instrument of choice in 1948 — and kept on a-blowin’ in the Marine Corps Band — told me that 8 of the ensemble’s 65 musicians are die-hard devotees, longtime practitioners from San Diego at large whose presence has been a constant in a band whose roster fluctuates in size from quarter to (academic) quarter.

I asked Wyman: Why the UCSD Wind Ensemble? And why would someone practice daily and rehearse weekly, over decades, for a band that pays nothing and garners scant attention? He replied, “Challenging music.”

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