I’m constantly amazed - and gratified - by
the stellar standards of these American college bands; most recently
I welcomed a CD by the University of South Carolina Wind Ensemble, whose
Bernstein transcriptions delighted me so (review
The New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble are no less impressive,
and Naxos must be congratulated for mining this rich and rewarding seam
The sound quality of these issues is also very good indeed, and that
adds immensely to the pleasure of these varied programmes.
Yale alumnus Michael Torke first came into view with his attention-grabbing
, just the first in a catchily-titled series of
works that established him as a composer of some significance. Javelin
described as an ‘orchestral olympiad’, is given here in
a bold and arresting arrangement by Merlin Patterson. Rhythms are supple,
articulation is precise and intonation - like the javelin-thrower’s
aim - is true. Indeed, there’s nothing to criticise and everything
to celebrate when the music-making is this polished and professional.
was written for Colin Currie, whose performance of Rautavaara’s
was included on my Recording of the Year
for 2012 (review
As its name implies it’s a musical evocation of the Mojave Desert,
and the important marimba part is expertly taken by Ji Hye Yung. It’s
a moody, mobile little number, with just enough colour, rhythmic vitality
and melodic interest to hold one’s interest. Not as memorable
perhaps, but Mojave
has a freewheeling character
that’s very appealing nonetheless.
Frank Ticheli’s American Elegy
, commissioned in response
to an American tragedy - the Columbine High School massacre of 20 April
1999 - gets a heartfelt outing here. This strikes me as a quintessentially
American work, whose quiet dignity, panoramic sweep and hymn-like passages
are reminiscent of Copland at his very best. Goodness, these Kansans
play with an inspiring blend of strength and solemnity, so much so that
I found myself listening to the piece several times in a row.
The Copland thread continues in Ticheli’s Four Shaker Songs
(No. 1. In Yonder Valley [3:32]; No. 2. Dance [1:40]; No. 3. Here Take
This Lovely Flower [2:28]; No. 4. Simple Gifts [3:44]), whose clear
and open harmonies conjure up a more innocent age. The writing is wonderfully
transparent - sample In Yonder Valley
- and conductor Paul W.
Popiel ensures the delightful, earthy Dance
is despatched with
precision and point. Simple Gifts
- familiar from Copland’s
ballet Appalachian Spring
- may get the big-band treatment here
but it’s never allowed to spill into bombast. Indeed, there’s
a judicious balance between content and dynamics in this programme that
makes it a pleasure from start to finish.
Who better to conclude this engaging collection of Americana than Copland
himself? His incidental music for Quiet City
, Irwin Shaw’s
rather bleak tale of urban despair, is as much a part of the American
landscape as those Shaker idylls. The two soloists - Steve Leisring
on trumpet and Margaret Marco on cor anglais - are outstanding, and
the rest of the band adds spine-tingling detail to the brooding character
of the piece. Moving from a gloomy urban landscape to a sun-dappled
rural one, the disc ends with Copland’s gentle and uplifting Variations
on a Shaker Melody
Clearly, contrasting landscapes are deeply embedded in the American
psyche - from the stirring words of the national anthem to John Ford’s
Westerns, John Steinbeck’s novels, Ansel Adams’s photographs
and the music of Copland and Virgil Thomson. This terrific disc continues
that great love affair.
Simply splendid; another fine college ensemble at its best.