Michael DAUGHERTY (b.1954)
Ladder to the Moon (2006) [19:55]
David MASLANKA (b.1943)
Concerto for Trombone and Wind Ensemble (2007) [35:13]
Christopher ROUSE (b.1949)
Wolf Rounds (2006) [15:35]
Frost Wind Ensemble at the University of Miami/Gary Green
rec. Gusman Hall, Coral Gables, Florida, USA November 2007
NAXOS 8.572439 [70:43]

This is one of the high points of the superlative Wind Band series from Naxos. Here are three interesting and substantial contemporary works - at least one of them definitively not a “band” work - performed at an extremely high level and forming a satisfying and unique program.

The Daugherty was a wonderful surprise. Between this work and another by Daugherty on Naxos 8.572319, I’ve been very happy to learn that I underestimated this composer. The present work is for solo violin and chamber winds, and its two movements draw inspiration from the works of Georgia O’Keeffe. However, one doesn’t need to know the program to appreciate the piece, which I hope finds a place in the repertoire. The work lingers in the memory long after it’s ended.

The Maslanka may be the weakest work on the disc - or it may be the best. It all depends on the listener’s tolerance level for dramatic music which plays out over a long span. Whenever I hear Maslanka, I think of a sort of postmodern Bruckner - his works tend to be largely tonal, quite lengthy, and focused on spiritual themes. The drama in this work comes from its dual function as a concerto and as a requiem for a friend of the composer and the soloist. It’s therefore sensible that the piece is dominated by slow music, and although there’s a violent, almost bluesy interruption in the middle of the second movement, it’s the simpler passages that are more effective. One of the unusual features of the piece are the several times where the rhythmic content is very simple, almost nothing but quarter notes, lending a chant-like quality to the line - at those times, the piece almost sounds like a transcription of a vocal work, and I found myself wondering if the composer had a text in mind as he wrote. The piece is written for an orchestral wind section with percussion plus a solo cello, which adds a unique effect. There are some very strong ideas here, and the work coheres more with repeated hearings, but I’m still not certain that it “needed” to be as long as it is. Regrettably, there are a few spots of sour intonation from the soloist, but the overall effect of the piece isn’t spoiled.

The Rouse, which gives the disc its title, is from another world completely. The beginning of the work is very reminiscent of John Adams’ Lollapallooza, with its bass saxophone riff repetitively snarled out and developed. The piece employs motivic repetition in a decidedly non-minimalistic way, and builds to several brutal peaks. It’s a virtuosic thrill-ride, to be sure - gripping, convincing, and a significant addition to the ever-growing literature for wind bands.

The Miami players are simply fantastic. There are a few very minor performance issues (mostly having to do with tuning), but they only serve to remind us that these are college students, after all! And barring that handful of moments, the technique and beauty of sound on display here is stunning. Gary Green leads the group through very musical performances that keep the listener’s attention. This isn’t just a great “band” disc; it’s an excellent program of contemporary music. With that in mind, this release may be an ideal entry point for those who’ve heard about the explosion of great music for winds in the last twenty years but haven’t known where to start. At Naxos price, it’s more than worth the time and money invested.

Benn Martin

Three excellent contemporary works, deserving of a wide audience.