, April 2011
Naxos has become the go-to label for recordings of contemporary wind band music. They have been making more readily accessible previously released minor label recordings from American universities to a growing audience. Of course, there are thousands of current and former band students who were fortunate to play these pieces in high school or college and these releases become seminal momentos of those performances. The current release pulls together recordings from ELF Records featuring conductor John Boyd. The recordings were made in the 1980s and 1990s and include two seminal band works. There are pieces by standard wind band composers Ron Nelson, Fisher Tull, and Warren Barker, as well as a work by the next generation of composers represented here by Andrew Boysen.
Ron Nelson’s music continues to gain in stature over time. The disc opens with his Fanfare for the Kennedy Center (performed by faculty from Indiana State). It is a brief, but engaging Americana fanfare that makes for a fitting opening to the disc. The second work received what may have been its recorded premiere. The Medieval Suite is by now an important repertoire piece for band. It was drawn from a larger choral work and is set in three movements serving as three homages to composers Leonin, Perotin, and Machaut. The Gregorian chant that opens the first movement sets the tone for a restrained first movement that then explodes into the exciting central movement. The piece is interesting for its use of implied chanting in the midst of the band’s textures and it is this sound which brings the work to full circle as it decrescendos into silence. The brass writing in both these pieces is among the composer’s finest.
There are two works by Fisher Tull (1934–1994) whose music continues to hold its own with wind bands. The wisely chosen Sketches on a Tudor Psalm follows the medieval sense of the Nelson piece using a tune by Thomas Tallis (the same one employed by Vaughan Williams in his Fantasia). It is well-performed and shaped by the Kent State ensemble. It is interesting to hear this melody as it receives full brass statements set against woodwind punctuations. Tull’s Rhapsody for Trumpet and Winds concludes this disc with a performance by a young Vincent DiMartino recorded in 1984. The piece is a free variation work that allows some technical prowess from its soloist set against a variety of wind textures of which Tull is a master. There are moments that are simply beautiful and richly-scored making this a fitting conclusion to the disc. Both works here give one a good sense of Tull’s compositional skills and are important parts of his growing discography.
Warren Barker’s name should be familiar to band musicians. Barker’s talents as an arranger for marching and symphonic bands lent themselves to popular tunes from stage, screen, and radio being made available in band settings. Fewer will have had the opportunity to play his concert pieces and that makes his delightfully jazzy Capriccio for Saxophone Quartet one of the more delightful discoveries on this release. The work, composed for the Northshore Concert Band (Illinois) and John P. Paynter, from 1988 showcases the quartet (played here by the superb Chicago Saxophone Quartet) in a rondo form. The music has its big Hollywood opening, a playful central echo section, and a Bewitch-like finale. A strong lyric idea helps provide contrast as well earlier in the piece. Overall, this probably is a real audience pleaser that can showcase superb sax soloists while demonstrating Barker’s compositional muscle.
Andrew Boysen’s Symphony for Winds and Percussion No. 1 shares a connection with Barker’s work in that it was commissioned by Paynter’s widow. The near 17-minute work is in three movements. The longest is the opening movement cast in a sonata-allegro form. It is a twelve-tone work but is based on two hexachords representing the 12-pitches of the chromatic scale rather than the more typical tone row approach. It is an exciting and often thrilling work that works its way brilliantly through the ensemble. The contrasting central movement is a modified chaconne featuring a line that is repeated six times over gradually more complex accompaniment. The final movement is a rondo with two ideas. The piece is a real showcase for percussion sections and creates fascinating textures and instrumental combinations that allow it to be quite accessible. The opening is often rather intense with resulting melodic atonal ideas helping to create aural anchors for the listener. It must be devilishly fun to play. The piece moves rather quickly never outstaying its welcome.
It is dangerous to critique student performances, of which some of these recordings are taken. The performances are first-rate nonetheless and hampered only by less than ideal sound in spots. It lends itself to a drier acoustic overall and what sounds at times like a wavering flutter, especially in the Medieval Suite. The disc does showcase the abilities of its internationally recognized conductor, John Boyd, illustrated by the way both bands recorded here have achieved a professional level of technique and overall sound. Minor quibbles aside, this is a fine disc of contemporary band music that includes works that are becoming standard repertoire for college, and even high school performers and it is good to have them readily available.