Philip GLASS (b.1937)
Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra (transc. Mark Lortz)
Mohammed FAIROUZ (b.1985)
Symphony No.4 In the Shadow of No Towers (2012)** † [34:37]
Ji Hye Jung & Gwendolyn Burgett (timpani)*, Jānis Porietis (trumpet)**
University of Kansas Wind Ensemble/Paul W. Popiel
rec. Lied Center of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, USA, 18-21 March, 2013
†World Première Recording
NAXOS 8.573205 [57:48]
Philip Glass’ wrote his Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra in 2000 following a commission from timpanist Jonathan Haas and five different ensembles. Another five ensembles in turn commissioned composer, arranger and percussionist Mark Lortz to transcribe the work for wind ensemble.
It has taken me a long time to come round to Philip Glass’ music since I am not a particular fan of minimalism. Although, along with most composers described as minimalist, he doesn’t like the label he did go through a period during which there was a great deal more repetition in his music than I could easily take. However, as with most composers he has developed and that feature is far less prominent that it was. He has steered a path between the seemingly interminable repetition that was the hallmark of thus characterised composers 30 or 40 years ago, and the advice Dvořák gave Foerster, namely that ‘if you come up with something nice, repeat it’. Listeners’ tastes also develop and I know that I should have kept up with his music because then I would have discovered a lot earlier how much I now enjoy it.
The concerto is an exciting and rewarding experience from the very first note with the combined forces of over 80 wind, brass and percussion musicians drawn from across the United States, the Far East and elsewhere making a thrilling impact. There is still a certain amount of ‘minimalist’ repetition and after a mere 35 seconds I was reminded, through a particular note pattern, of John Adams’ The Chairman Dances. It is an essential ingredient here and helps build the tension and excitement. There is an amazing power at work here creating a fantastic feeling of a driving forward momentum that seems unstoppable. In Jazz I always steer clear of ‘big band’ as I’m not keen on banks of brass blaring out, much preferring the intimacy of quartets. In ‘classical’ music the experience is totally different and when massed brass appears in this work it is breathtakingly thrilling. Whereas the first movement is an ‘all guns blazing’ affair the second is more restrained with some ethereal moments before the close comes with almost a whisper.
Interestingly while the booklet notes describe the concerto as a three movement work the track listing has it as four. It calls the third movement simply cadenzas which consists of each of the two timpanists embarking on an individual improvised excursion. This must be a brilliant thing to watch. It ends with accompaniment from xylophone and tom-toms before the movement segues into the finale. There the rest of band rejoin further to build up the momentum. We finish with a real white hot crucible of fabulous rumba-like rhythms with the timpanists going all out to finish on a whirlwind of sound. The two women solo timpanists are absolutely superb belting out the biggest possible sounds; what a thoroughly enjoyable time they must have had. This is a wonderfully energising concerto that demands multiple listenings before it lets you go. Philip Glass come back, all is forgiven. No, I should rephrase that to read: Philip Glass, am I forgiven?
It sounds like the realms of fantasy to say that ‘In the Shadow of No Towers’ is a symphony that Arab American composer Mohammed Fairouz wrote as a response to the 9/11 outrage and that it was inspired by Art Spiegelman’s comic book of the same name, but that is the case. Spiegelman has the unique ability to put in graphic novel form, thoughts, feelings and opinions that could not easily be expressed in any other written medium. The mere thought that they can be represented as a comic book seems an outlandish suggestion until you see it. Spiegelman is, after all, the man who managed to use that form in Maus to tell his Polish-born holocaust surviving father’s horrific experience of life under the Nazis in Poland and his subsequent imprisonment in a concentration camp. Rather than using drawings of people to represent characters, he used mice for the Jews, cats for the Nazis and pigs for the Poles. In this way he was able to use the form to tell a story that would be difficult to tell in any other way.
Fairouz entitles the movements in this symphony just as Spiegelman calls the sections in his book. He describes the narrative through the music and takes as a point of departure a few particular strips. The first, The New Normal, seeks to infer that the majority of people tend to ‘sleepwalk’ through life. A family of three is seen sitting mesmerised in the front of a TV with soporific expressions on their faces and a calendar behind them identifying the day as September 8. Initially the music reminded me very much of the music for the 1951 film The Day The Earth Stood Still, creating an almost otherworldly atmosphere. Then the unthinkable happens and the music explodes with fury as the towers are shattered and disintegrate in clouds of noxious dust to end as a gigantic pile of rubble. Spiegelman’s strip shows the family sitting there with horrified expressions and their hair standing up on end with the calendar reading September 9. The use of a funereal sounding trumpet represents the huge number of innocent deaths that have wakened the complacent populace from their ‘sleep’. I recommend that readers check out the comic strips which are reproduced on the composer’s website. Finally the strip shows the family sitting with their original expressions again but with their hair still frazzled and the calendar replaced by a Union flag. Things have returned to ‘normal’ though we know things will never be quite the same, hence The New Normal.
The second movement is entitled Notes of a Heartbroken Narcissist which seeks to describe the shattering effect this has had upon a self-obsessed and self-centred society where material possessions are so often worshipped at the expense of people. To do this Fairouz pares down the number of instruments to a bare minimum. The movement starts with cymbal players scraping coins across the surfaces of the discs. We stare at ground zero contemplating and lamenting the huge death toll. For a moment in time none of our possessions are of any concern and we are forced to feel a kind of remorse for our own wretched existence that has perhaps in part been a contributory factor to this terrifying event. Timpani, cymbals, chimes, bass drum, harp, piano and double bass are used to considerable effect to represent a mourning, contemplative and perplexed nation.
Then after a silence of at least 20 seconds the third movement bursts into life with music that reminded me of Charles Ives’ Putnam’s Camp from his Three Places in New England. Brass sections vie with each other for supremacy as two distinct sections of America refuse to listen to each other. I get the feeling that the United Red Zone of America represents a jingoistic urban population counter-posed to the United Blue Zone of America. The Blues show us the angry nature of the rural population who seek to blame what they see as a more self-obsessed portion of the country who they feel have greater responsibility than they do for the atrocity. Finally they reach an uneasy accommodation and mesh together to complete the movement.
In the final movement, Anniversaries Fairouz cleverly uses woodblocks that play throughout timed at 60 beats per minute so that the movement lasts 9:11. Using material that recalls the opening movement the music rises in volume and the end comes without any sense of resolution.
What Fairouz aimed to achieve here is a profoundly sad comment on the USA today, namely that it is a nation which has still not really come to terms with that shocking event and that also perhaps as the booklet note writer, Paul R. Laird, Professor of Musicology, University of Kansas puts it “...our chaotic reactions to the event have failed to draw us together as a country”.
Steve Smith of the New York Times said of the symphony that it “... is technically impressive, consistently imaginative and in its finest stretches deeply moving.” I absolutely concur. He also said of the symphony that he predicted it would be played outside the confines of University wind bands where such music often remains.
I cannot imagine that either work on this excellent CD will remain in the repertoire of these bands since the music is too great and too important not to burst on to the world scene. I would make an urgent plea to the programmers of our own BBC Proms to include a concert in which both were played and to invite the UKWE to perform them; it would go down a storm.
I’m perplexed to understand some of Spiegelman’s comments on Fairouz’s symphony which he describes as a “... scary, somber and seriously silly symphony ...” going on to say “... He emerges from the rubble with a very tiny piece of high-brow cartoon music.” However, Fairouz quotes this comment on his own website so he obviously reads something else into it. I was simply massively impressed, moved and overwhelmed by the sheer inventiveness and brilliance of the structure and its execution. The work was commissioned with the UKWE in mind by Reach Out Kansas Inc.
For a first excursion by Fairouz into composing for wind band it is quite staggering. It will no doubt lead to queues of similar bands, to the wonderful University of Kansas Wind Ensemble, forming outside his door clamouring for him to compose a work for them. As indicated the UKWE, one of the USA’s finest and most highly esteemed concert bands, is utterly fabulous in their ability to interpret two works in which the lack of strings goes completely unnoticed. The three soloists are sublime in their given roles with the power demonstrated by the two percussionists in Glass’s concerto quite amazing. Paul Popiel as conductor had a formidable job in keeping all these disparate balls in the air but completed the task with huge aplomb.
This is a seriously fine disc and with Fairouz’s symphony here receiving its world première recording it should be flying off the shelves.