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Shadow of Sirius
Steven BRYANT (b. 1972)
Concerto for Wind Ensemble (2007-2010) [34:10]
Joel PUCKETT (b. 1977)
Shadow of Sirius - Concerto for Flute with Wind and Percussion (2009) [22:46]
John MACKEY (b. 1973)
Kingfishers Catch Fire (2007) [10:46]
Marianne Gedigian (flute)
University of Texas Wind Ensemble/Jerry F. Junkin
rec. 30-31 October 2010, Bates Recital Hall, Butler School of Music, University of Texas at Austin, TX, USA
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet included
Also available on Naxos NBD0048 (Blu-ray Audio)

What an immensely rewarding series this is, and how accomplished these American university ensembles. Among the albums I’ve already reviewed are Point Blank (Illinois State), Landscapes (Kansas) and Bernstein Transcriptions (South Carolina). In the main these wind band programmes feature contemporary works that you probably won’t hear elsewhere. What better showcase for composers than this, where the music is played with a passion and polish that would put many a professional group to shame? Throw in good recorded sound and you begin to see why this is such an important part of the Naxos catalogue.

At the time of writing (November 2015) Shadow of Sirius was only available on Blu-ray Audio (24/96 stereo and dts-HD Master Audio 5.1) and to download or stream; it has yet to appear on CD. I’m not sure why that should be the case, but the antiphonal trumpets of John Mackey’s Kingfishers Catch Fire do lend themselves to a multi-channel mix. That said, the high-res stereo download is very impressive; in fact it’s well up to the standard set by previous instalments in the series.

Indeed, the opening movement of Steven Bryant’s Concerto for Wind Ensemble, with its weaving woodwinds, is astonishingly tactile. The plethora of rhythms that follow – the lower brass add thrilling ballast to the score – speaks of an imaginative, well-crafted piece. The more delicate instrumental strands and muted colours of the second movement are no less alluring. Goodness, these young Texans don’t just play with panache they add plenty of feeling, too; the sense of absolute engagement – of hushed intensity – that attends this movement is ample proof of that.

The flow of invention is undiminished in the work’s wonderfully mobile central section; here, in the manner of Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, various instruments and groups thereof get to have their say. The breezy basses – what plucky pluckers they are – and those bracing tuttis are a pleasing contrast to the goosebumpy bass drum that underpins the fourth movement. Gongs shimmer gently in the gloaming, while Jerry F. Junkin, the university’s Director of Bands, does a splendid job of maintaining both precision and momentum. As for the concerto’s big-band finale, so pithy and propulsive, it’s a real showstopper. Bryant is supremely confident composer who doesn't over-reach himself or overwork his material. These players do him proud.

Joel Puckett’s Shadow of Sirius takes its name from an eponymous collection of poetry by W. S. Merwin, published in 2008. As Anthony C. Marinello, III points out in his somewhat sketchy liner-notes, Puckett wrote the piece in response to ‘a personal tragedy’. The solo part is taken by the university’s Professor of Flute, Marianne Gedigian. In the unsettled first movement,The Nomad Flute, the soloist is confronted at every turn by percussive challenges. Even at this early stage it's clear that this score, like Bryant’s, is characterised by an economy of style that’s both compelling and proportionate. The committed and sensitive musicianship of all concerned is an added bonus.

The central Eye of Shadow has a spare, darkly elegiac quality – as does Gedigian’s warm, unaffected playing – that’s very moving indeed. The writing is remarkably uncluttered and the spacious recording, engineered by Silas Brown and Charlie Post, is pricked with moments of pure loveliness. Also, Gedigian brings a gentle, Faun-like sense of reverie to the final movement, Into the Clouds. What a joy it is to hear contemporary, resolutely tonal music that still has something to say. Not the most probing of pieces, perhaps, but it’s deeply satisfying nonetheless; indeed, it lingers in the mind long after the last notes have faded.

John Mackey’s Kingfishers Catch Fire was commissioned by a group of Japanese wind ensembles. Such collective approaches – the Bryant and Puckett pieces included - seem to be the norm these days. That said, the method hardly matters when it results in works of such quality and substance. Following falls and falls of rain, the evanescent first part of Mackey’s pictorial piece, has a rich plumage all of its own. The sonorities here are just gorgeous, the brass superbly blended; therafter the virtuosic second part, Kingfishers catch fire, explodes in a veritable riot of light and motion. This may be a short piece, but it's sure to be a hit with lovers of the genre.

I doff my hat to these terrifically talented Texans; a top-notch recording, too.

Dan Morgan