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Michael TORKE (b. 1961)
Javelin (arr. for wind ensemble by Merlin Patterson) (1994/1997) [9:19]
Mojave (version for marimba and wind ensemble)* (2011) [15:30]
Frank TICHELI (b. 1958)
An American Elegy (2000) [10:23]
Simple Gifts: Four Shaker Songs (2002) [10:24]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Quiet City (arr. for wind ensemble by Donald Hunsberger)** (1941/1992) [10:19]
Variations on a Shaker Melody (1960) [3:49]
*Ji Hye Yung (marimba); **Steve Leisring (trumpet), Margaret Marco (cor anglais)
University of Kansas Wind Ensemble/Paul W. Popiel
rec. 1-2, 21-23 April 2012, Lied Center of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, USA
NAXOS 8.573104 [60:44]

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 (review). 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 Ecstatic Orange, 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.
Mojave was written for Colin Currie, whose performance of Rautavaara’s Percussion Concerto 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 as Javelin 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.
Dan Morgan