Wine Dark Sea
Dan WELCHER (b. 1948)
Spumante [6:44]
Donald GRANTHAM (b. 1947)
J’ai été au bal [9:43]
Frank TICHELI (b. 1958)
Clarinet Concerto [22:10]
John MACKEY (b. 1973)
Wine-Dark Sea: Symphony for Band [31:09]
Nathan Williams, clarinet (concerto); University of Texas Wind Ensemble, Jerry Junkin
rec. September 13-14, 2014, Bass Recital Hall, University of Texas at Austin, USA

With all the hot air being blown in the American presidential race, it’s time for a reminder that my home state of Texas is notable for another kind of winds, too. The University of Texas Wind Ensemble is one of the finest in the country, and its frequent appearances on disc have been cause for celebration; “Bells for Stokowski” was praised here on MusicWeb as having “something for everyone” (review).

Here the ensemble presents four newish works for wind band by American composers. Together, the four pieces comprise a full concert, including a concerto and a symphony. Dan Welcher’s Spumante, named after the fizzy wine, is a likewise fizzy opener, built on a light-hearted melody and a repeated-note accompaniment meant to evoke bubbles.

Donald Grantham’s J’ai été au bal, or “I was at the dance,” is a fairly abstracted, episodic representation of New Orleans dances and street parades. There’s a bit of Ives here, and given the subject matter,1 you might expect a more riotous atmosphere in general. But, starting at about 3:20, there’s a brass band on parade, and a couple of authentic folk songs appear near the start and end.

Frank Ticheli’s clarinet concerto starts with the famous riff from Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, but when the riff reaches its conclusion, the piece zooms off in another direction, and I’m astonished by how well this works. The standout here is the beautiful slow movement, a Copland tribute which never quotes the older composer but evokes his spacious lyricism. Another highlight, throughout, is the way that the clarinet interacts with its woodwind accompanists; something about Ticheli’s wind band orchestration makes this feel seamless. The solo clarinet emerges from, and blends back into, the rest of the band with naturalness and ease.

Partial credit, no doubt, belongs to Keith Johnson, the legendary recording engineer at work on this disc, and of course to Nathan Williams, the soloist. The booklet sadly doesn’t mention Williams at all, so I’ll supply a brief biography here: Williams is the principal clarinetist for the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra in Houston, and has a long history as a visiting professor of clarinet at various institutions, including the University of Texas.

John Mackey’s note for his symphony, Wine-Dark Sea, gives an interesting look into his creative process. It seems that he leaves the titling of his works to his wife Abby, and often she will give the work a name midway through composing, which dictates how the rest of the work goes. (Note: the booklet is inconsistent on whether or not “Wine-Dark” has a hyphen.) In this case, she created the programmatic storyline in advance for his music to follow. It’s a truncated telling of the Odyssey.

Mackey writes that he needed the Odyssey storyline to help him write a 30-minute-long piece, because “how could I put together a piece that large? Abby had an idea. Why not write something programmatic, and let the story determine the structure?” Now, the booklet says Mackey has a strength in dance music, but it doesn’t say if he is primarily a miniaturist. I wonder where the struggle to write long works comes from. Certainly there are past generations who had no problem with a half-hour symphony. “How could I put together a piece that large?” is not a question that occurred to Mahler, or Havergal Brian.

At any rate, the piece does have a legendary feel, right from the horns’ bold once-upon-a-time opening melody, punctuated by tam-tam and cymbals. The scoring is virtuosic, especially for the percussion players, who have an awful lot to do from start to finish, so much so that I wonder why they don’t call it a “Wind and Percussion Ensemble.” The first movement is a sort of long rondo, with the opening theme reappearing at various points between episodes.

The second movement opens with a long harp solo, which is discreetly accompanied by a handful of well-placed piano chords. It’s an example of Mackey’s gift for interesting sonorities, although building a whole movement around the harp is another surprise, for me, on a wind band CD. Then comes the finale, which is a slow boil that builds to a truly dazzling minor-key climax. The last chord is a bit of a letdown, for me, but why split hairs?

I don’t know if this CD will have tons of appeal for the mainstream listener, but for fans of new music for “wind, percussion and harp” ensemble, this has a lot of appeal. I’m especially fond of Frank Ticheli’s clarinet concerto, which is brilliantly crafted. But the symphony reveals new strength over repeated listens, too. As mentioned, Keith Johnson’s recorded sound is exemplary, but turn up the volume to fully realize this disc’s potential.

Brian Reinhart

Previous review: Dan Morgan

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