Wine Dark Sea
Dan WELCHER (b. 1948)
Spumante (1998; arr. for wind ensemble by Paul Bissell, 2000) [6:43]
Donald GRANTHAM (b. 1947)
J'ai été au bal (1999) [9:43]
Frank TICHELI (b. 1958)
Concerto for Clarinet and Wind Ensemble (2010)
I. Rhapsody for George [7:12]
II. Song for Aaron [8:01]
III. Riffs for Lenny [6:55]
John MACKEY (b. 1973)
Wine Dark Sea (Symphony for Band) (2014)*
I. Hubris [10:50]
II. Immortal Thread, So Weak [11:45]
III. The Attentions of Souls [8:32]
Nathan Williams (clarinet)
The University of Texas Wind Ensemble/Jerry Junkin
rec. 13-14 September 2014, Bates Recital Hall, The University of Texas at Austin
*World première recording
REFERENCE RECORDINGS RR-137 HDCD [69:41]
‘I doff my hat to these terrifically talented
Texans’; that was my enthusiastic sign-off to this ensemble’s
Shadow of Sirius, the latest of Naxos's Wind Band Classics.
That series is particularly valuable, as it showcases the talents of
American college groups. UTWE is high among them, so I was delighted
to hear they would feature in this new disc from audiophile label Reference
Recordings. In the past RR releases have certainly lived up to their
name; indeed, Organ
Polychrome impressed me so much that I made it one of my top
picks for 2015.
The label’s in-house recordings – denoted by the album prefix
RR – are masterminded by Keith O. Johnson. Something of a legend
he uses both hand-made and carefully modified equipment to produce some
of the most life-like recordings available today. The releases with
the prefix FR are recorded by other production teams and licensed to
Reference. Manfred Honeck’s Pittsburgh Beethoven
5 and 7 and Bruckner
Fourth fall into that category. However, as good as those SoundMirror
productions are they can’t beat a ‘Johnson Special’.
Now, back to the music. John Mackey, composer of the title piece Wine
Dark Sea, came to my attention with his short but brilliantly plumed
Kingfishers Catch Fire; that was one of the stand-out items
on the Sirius album I mentioned earlier. As for Frank Ticheli
he swum into my ken with An American Elegy, a deeply
affecting response to the Columbine shootings in 1999. Landscapes,
the collection from which it comes, is yet another of those Naxos Wind
Band releases. I’ve also enjoyed The
Shore, which finds the composer in confident choral mode.
Dan Welcher, whose Spumante opens with the popping of a cork,
is new to me. This engaging piece, commissioned by the Boston Pops,
is rather more subtle than its effervescent title might suggest. The
arrangement is assured, the playing is crisp and the recording is immaculate.
There are moments here that remind me of Leonard Bernstein’s overture
to Candide; then again, Lenny looms so large in the history
of 20th-century American music that he’s impossible to ignore.
That said, Welcher casts the net wide, citing William Schuman, Samuel
Barber and Walter Piston as his primary musical influences.
I’ve not encountered the music of Donald Grantham before, but
his Louisiana-inspired J'ai été au bal (I went to the
dance), with its artful use of Cajun tunes, is an ear-pricking, toe-tapping
delight. The music’s panoply of colours and rhythms is superbly
caught; even more astounding is the virtuosity of this band, whose stylish
playing would put many a professional to shame. Would that we had such
fine ensembles here in the UK; alas, the parlous state of music education
in our schools seems to have extended to many of our universities as
well. That's not to say there aren't any talented groups performing
at this level, just that we don't have nearly enough of them.
Next up is Ticheli's clarinet concerto, with Eastman/Juilliard
graduate and chamber-musician Nathan Williams as the soloist. The composer
talks of his ‘playful allusions’ to the music of Gershwin,
Copland and – of course – Bernstein, all of which are skilfully
done. Williams is a lively and communicative player with a fine technique.
He certainly impresses in the limpid loveliness of Song for Aaron,
so redolent of Copland's signature pieces. As for the Bernstein riffs
– with a nod towards West Side Story – they find
composer, soloist and band at their deft and rhythmic best. There are
some highly individual slips and slides here – all so confidently
voiced – and the vigorous sign-off left me wanting more.
In his candid booklet notes John Mackey admits that he writes the music
and his wife Abby comes up with the titles; that's a novel approach,
but the wonderfully evocative results speak for themselves. Wine
Dark Sea – a Jerry Junkin/UTWE commission – was to
last 30 minutes, hence the decision to go for something both epic and
programmatic; well, Homer’s Odyssey qualifies on both
counts. The first movement, with its opening fanfares and thrilling
echoes, certainly has the necessary boldness and sweep. The music’s
compelling character – savour that snapping side-drum and Stygian
bass one – is superbly realised in this very sophisticated recording.
It’s a beguiling, velvet sound, just like the best of analogue
but with an extraordinarily wide dynamic range.
Mackey’s score is most inventive, with much for the band to explore
and execute, and I was struck by just how magnetic the outer movements
are. Not only that, the music has muscle and sinew, its more rarefied
moments complemented by passages of startling weight and trenchancy.
By contrast the central movement, with its atmospheric harp part, is
beautifully spun. The restless finale has undeniable tension, and the
work builds to an emphatic close. Indeed, Wine Dark Sea is
genuinely symphonic in its scope and impact; it's a fine piece, and
it deserves to do well. As always the instrumental blend is faultless,
there's passion aplenty, and the recording is first rate; really, what
more could you possibly want?
Music of variety and substance, stylishly played; another
Rolls-Royce recording from Reference.