, March 2010
One of a number of recently released CDs of wind orchestra music, performed by an American university ensemble, this adds to a fine collection of music for the genre on Naxos. The standard of playing from these students is excellent and comes across with professionalism.
H Owen Reed’s Overture 1940 is an enjoyable piece which seems to combine subtle musical elements from different parts of the world into a coherent whole. The warlike drumming at the opening, combined with the date of the title, suggests a connection with the Second World War. This is a mostly lyrical piece which was originally composed for orchestra and was arranged by William Berz, with the approval of the composer, in 2005.
Reed’s Fanfare for Remembrance has a biting opening, where silence forms an important part of the composition, building tension…The flugelhorn solo is beautifully played, however, with a muted tone and delicate balance. Using the well-known melody, the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Reed’s setting uses wonderful harmonies and puts the melody into a poignant and well-conceived context. The narrator is perhaps one step too far into a film-like haze, with a poem by Genée heard over trumpet ostinati. Even so, the effect is an interesting one, with the repeated musical material allowing time for respectful reflection. Reed is not a composer I had encountered before, but on the basis of these two pieces I’d like to hear more.
Karel Husa was born in Prague in 1921 and moved to the United States in the 1950s. His Smetana Fanfare was written in 1984 for San Diego University’s Smetana Festival, and is based on material from Smetana’s own music. Husa’s language is direct and powerful. This is a strong work which imprints upon the memory.
The most striking thing about the opening of Husa’s Music for Prague 1968 is the well controlled and confidently played solo piccolo, which builds into a showcase for flutes and later oboes, heard over a punctuated timpani melody. The full power of the brass section enters, creating at first a bold unison, followed by a dramatic fanfare, with strong rhythms, repeating elements and powerful percussion writing. The timpani melody is once again framed with a unison pedal note from the trumpets, to impressive effect, before the piccolo once again takes over. This is the first of four dramatic movements which are full of symbolism and form a strong memorial to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The second movement, an Aria, boasts dissonant harmonies and rising tensions, despite its calm tempo. The third movement is an interlude for percussion, with the bells of Prague represented against ominous silences before a side-drum piles up the tension into the outbreak of the final movement. The rhythmic precision in the finale perhaps betrays that these are student players; although accurate, the playing does not have the tight precision this music needs. In the style of a Toccata, this music features repeated rhythmic patterns in a vivid battle scene. This comes to an abrupt end, with the timpani theme re-emerging. The building unison develops into a chorale of the theme. This is extended and allowed to dominate as the other elements of the piece retreat. Music with a very strong meaning, this is emotionally draining for performers and audience alike and demonstrates Husa’s excellence as a composer.
A third piece by Reed follows…Renascence seems innocuous after Music for Prague, but its cheerfulness is infectious and the light-hearted style is a suitable antidote to the heavy emotion of Husa’s music.
Another Czech composer who emigrated to the US in the 1950s is Václav Nelhýbel. His Fanfares also demonstrate the influence of Smetana, and following a dramatic opening, lyrical melodic lines are heard over a static harmony.
The final work on the disc is William Schuman’s George Washington Bridge, a work describing the changing aspects of the famous New York landmark, paying tribute to its architecture and the composer’s anthropomorphic view of the structure. The music is expansive, and I particularly enjoyed a section which could easily be descriptive of the horns from traffic on the bridge and possibly also of boats passing underneath [7:22].
This is a successful disc which will, I hope, contribute towards the wider recognition of wind orchestra music. The playing is good and each piece is delivered with confidence and commitment. The range of repertoire is interesting and varied, with much to offer.