Wayne OQUIN (b. 1977)
Tower Ascending (2009) [8:08]
Ricardo LORENZ (b. 1961)
El Muro (2008) [11:26]
Michael TILSON THOMAS (b. 1944)
Street Song (1988) [8:08]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Toccata Marziale (1924) [5:13]
James MOBBERLEY (b. 1954)
Words of Love (2008) [7:39]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments (1924) [19:04]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Fanfare for the Common Man (1942) [3:12]
D. Ray McClellen (clarinet); Ellen Ritchey (soprano); Anatoly Sheludyakov (piano); University of Georgia Wind Ensemble/John P. Lynch
rec. 11-14 February 2011, University of Georgia Performing Arts Centre
NAXOS 8.572917 [71:12]
The programme of this excellent disc showcasing an outstandingly fine American student wind band has been carefully thought out. The booklet could serve as a model to others. For each of the composers likely to be new to most of us a short biographical sketch is included. This is followed by an introduction to the recorded work by the composer himself. The recording is rich, clear, and immediate to the point that the clicking of the brass instruments’ valves can be heard in places.
The first piece on the disc is Tower Ascending by Wayne Oquin. The work runs for almost exactly eight minutes, of which the first four minutes are slow, with wide open American sonorities reminiscent of composers such as Copland or Roy Harris. The second half is fast and brilliant, closer to John Adams. The title is a clue that the piece is meant to evoke the construction of a skyscraper, and the composer explains how and why in a fair amount of detail in the booklet. I don’t get it, frankly, but then I rarely do, so maybe it’s me. In any event it doesn’t really matter to much, as the piece is brilliantly written for the medium, contains many very beautiful sounds and comes to a most satisfyingly noisy conclusion. One of the many surprises in the booklet is reading that Oquin, who has composed here a piece as accessible as any you will hear, had as one of his teachers a certain Milton Babbitt.
If I didn’t “get” the skyscraper connection in Tower Ascending, I was totally at sea with the “wall” connection in El Muro. Here is a taster of the thinking behind the piece. “At a conceptual level, El Muro is my response to how I feel about walls, whether these walls exist in reality or in our minds.” He then expands upon this in detail. I can only apologise to him, and to those who manage to take this kind of thing seriously, for finding such stuff risible. But if the composer is really thinking about such matters, or sincerely trying to express feelings about such matters, whilst he is placing crotchets and quavers on the page, all I can say is that none of it comes out in the music. The musical language is more advanced than that of the Oquin, the opening bringing reminders of Stravinsky and Messiaen to the Latin American stylistic elements the composer himself acknowledges. It is diffuse, however, and in spite of some strikingly effective passages I find the work only intermittently memorable, and none too convincing from a formal point of view.
Street Song is the first music I have heard by Michael Tilson Thomas. He composed it as a brass quintet in 1988, but then arranged it for the brass players of the London Symphony Orchestra, presumably whilst he was Chief Conductor. It is in three linked sections, the first of which is rather like Hindemith with a strong dash of Americana. The second is pensive with lots of very close harmony, a feature of the work as a whole. There is a fair amount of jazz in the third section, but this is treated with great subtlety, and indeed restraint and impeccable taste are features of this impressive short work. The music of the three “songs” comes together near the end in a beautifully scored and gentle coda. The performance is remarkable, and only very occasionally does the suspicion that odd notes here and there, especially in quiet chords, are not placed squarely in the centre, betray the fact that we are listening to young players and not a professional group.
The players clearly relish the rumbustious bustle of Vaughan Williams’ Toccata Marziale, and play most sensitively the sustained notes and chords of James Mobberley’s Words of Love. The premise behind this piece is rather too personal for this listener, and in any case, and sadly, the piece is scuppered for me by the vibrato-heavy singing of Ellen Ritchey.
Anatoly Sheludyakov is the impressive soloist in Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, his combative style perfectly suited to the percussive nature of most of the work. He is most competently supported by the young musicians, who will surely have found the work a challenge, and very different indeed in aims and in style from the rest of the programme. The collection ends with a suitably imposing performance of Copland’s celebrated Fanfare for the Common Man.
An interesting and varied programme expertly played by an ensemble of young musicians.