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Steve Schwartz, March 2011

Howlin’ wolf, and others. Naxos bills this as an entry in their “Wind Band Classics” series. How many series does Naxos have? And it’s not just ad hype, either, but a genuine series, with lots of discs. Does Naxos release more new stuff than anybody else? I certainly can’t keep up with it all, but it’s a nice problem for me to have.

This contains scores by American composers, all of whom connect somehow with the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, as teachers or students. Christopher Rouse and Michael Daugherty are now fairly hot tickets, while David Maslanka has a somewhat specialized reputation as a superior provider of band pieces. The works here differ from one another in their approach to the wind ensemble.

Georgia O’Keefe’s New York paintings inspired Daugherty’s Ladder to the Moon. There’s a prominent solo violin part, although the piece isn’t really a concerto (you just have to listen to Daugherty’s own Fire and Blood violin concerto to immediately get the difference) but shares more with large-scale chamber music. The ensemble consists of wind octet, percussion, and double bass. I must admit that I don’t see the relation between the paintings and the music, despite Daugherty’s liner notes, but it doesn’t really matter. If Daugherty hadn’t suggested O’Keefe, I doubt that she would have occurred to you. Nevertheless, the two-movement piece sustains interest on its own. The first movement meditates almost obsessively on the interval of a descending minor third. Far from outstaying its welcome, it draws you in ever more deeply. After a slow intro, the second movement begins to jump, with almost Bernsteinian energy and rhythms. Here and there, Mozart’s “Jupiter” theme sticks its oar in. This movement falls into sections more distinctly than the first, with slow music—especially from the introduction—alternating with fast. It strikes me as a bit diffuse, but not enough to put me off.

If Daniel Maslanka has written a piece other than for chorus or wind ensemble, I don’t know it. He studied with Oberlin professor Joseph Wood, a highly poetic composer almost totally unknown today. Maslanka also studied at Michigan State with band composer H. Owen Reed, and he owes much of his scoring to Reed. Maslanka’s trombone concerto aims for symphonic sweep. The composer shows little interest in “pure” music. For him, music expresses, if not thoughts, feelings, often religious ones. Themes become icons or symbols. That tendency certainly holds true in this work, conceived as an in memoriam for a friend and flutist. Maslanka uses a wind ensemble, plus piano, percussion, and solo cellist, representing the flutist’s husband. As a concerto, however, the work falls short, mainly because it gives so little to the solo trombone. Indeed, the solo cello gets more important narrative shots. The piece works much better as a tone poem to an abstract narrative. The first movement, “Requiem,” opens with a plainchant idea, and this mood carries through, with occasional dissonant outbursts from the orchestral mass. “Beloved”—another slow movement—opens with a passage for solo cello, followed by one for solo flute. Again, one wonders why Maslanka thinks of this as a trombone concerto. The movement climaxes on another chant-like theme before moving to the first quick music of the work, against which the chant plays. The music becomes increasingly agitated, but through the shakeup emerges a chorale, whether original or pre-existent, I don’t know. Maslanka has a habit of putting chorales in his large-scale works. The movement ends quietly. The finale, “Be Content, Be Calm,” gives us a slow opening once again, as well as another prominent cello solo. The music builds to the most emotional climax so far in the entire work—in the words of Eliot, an “overwhelming question”—which breaks into yet another chorale, again one I don’t know. It sounds very much like Bach and functions almost identically to the chorale in the Berg violin concerto—consolation at the end.

At certain times, the score strikes me as overly “pi” and that Maslanka often resorts to an easy expressive path, but I can’t deny the moments of genuine poetry and beauty. I’ve decided that its virtues outweigh its flaws and that not everything need be the Berg violin concerto or the Fauré Requiem.

The most spectacular item on the disc, Christopher Rouse’s Wolf Rounds made my jaw drop, simply as a feat of composition. Scored for winds, a whole lot of percussion, and electrified bass (to cut through the joyous racket the ensemble makes), it’s the most “band-like” piece on the program. Beyond that, it enters the mind like a shot of adrenalin in the arm of a heavy espresso drinker. It mainlines excitement. Rouse describes the piece very well:

…a series of “circular” musical ideas that would repeat over and over until metamorphosing to a new idea that would then also be repeated in the same fashion until becoming yet another. These musics would be of different lengths so that that their repeated overlaps would produce a constantly changing sonic landscape. Sometimes these ideas would repeat verbatim; at other times there would be gradual but constant development within each repetition. Some instruments would introduce new musics while others would continue to repeat their material for a longer period of time before moving on to a new idea.

If the description reminds you of minimalism, it’s misled you a bit. This is an extremely maximal piece. It sounds like different tapes playing at the same time, but against a clear, steady beat, with interludes of absolute rhythmic lockstep. Brazil-like cross-rhythms creep in and get the feet moving. Why the title Wolf Rounds? “Rounds” is easy enough to figure out, but why “wolf?” Rouse originally considered calling it Loops, but rejected the title as too boring. Then he thought of a bi-lingual pun: “loops”/lupus, Latin for “wolf.” By me, this piece is the very best heavy metal I’ve ever heard.

The performers seem an all-Florida affair. Glenn Basham, concertmaster of the Naples Philharmonic, plays with bite. Tim Conner, principal trombone of the Florida Philharmonic, does what he can with the little Maslanka gives him, but the part itself tends to fade him out. I couldn’t find credit for the Maslanka cellist, but the player delivers an expressive account—with, I must add, better material. The real stars of the enterprise, however—other than the composers themselves—are Gary Green and the University of Miami’s Frost Wind Ensemble. This is ambitious music, despite in some places light moments. The Daugherty needs the intensity and concentration of a chamber group and the Maslanka a firm hand to keep it from diffusing into the sentimental aether. I can’t even comprehend the precision of ensemble and attention to clarity demanded by the Rouse. Green and his band meet all challenges, and then some. The composers should at least write them nice thank-yous.

Benn Martin
MusicWeb International, November 2010

This is one of the high points of the superlative Wind Band series from Naxos. Here are three interesting and substantial contemporary works—at least one of them definitively not a “band” work—performed at an extremely high level and forming a satisfying and unique program.

The Daugherty was a wonderful surprise. Between this work and another by Daugherty on Naxos 8.572319, I’ve been very happy to learn that I underestimated this composer. The present work is for solo violin and chamber winds, and its two movements draw inspiration from the works of Georgia O’Keeffe. However, one doesn’t need to know the program to appreciate the piece, which I hope finds a place in the repertoire. The work lingers in the memory long after it’s ended.

The Maslanka may be the weakest work on the disc—or it may be the best. It all depends on the listener’s tolerance level for dramatic music which plays out over a long span. Whenever I hear Maslanka, I think of a sort of postmodern Bruckner—his works tend to be largely tonal, quite lengthy, and focused on spiritual themes. The drama in this work comes from its dual function as a concerto and as a requiem for a friend of the composer and the soloist. It’s therefore sensible that the piece is dominated by slow music, and although there’s a violent, almost bluesy interruption in the middle of the second movement, it’s the simpler passages that are more effective. One of the unusual features of the piece are the several times where the rhythmic content is very simple, almost nothing but quarter notes, lending a chant-like quality to the line—at those times, the piece almost sounds like a transcription of a vocal work, and I found myself wondering if the composer had a text in mind as he wrote. The piece is written for an orchestral wind section with percussion plus a solo cello, which adds a unique effect. There are some very strong ideas here, and the work coheres more with repeated hearings, but I’m still not certain that it “needed” to be as long as it is. Regrettably, there are a few spots of sour intonation from the soloist, but the overall effect of the piece isn’t spoiled.

The Rouse, which gives the disc its title, is from another world completely. The beginning of the work is very reminiscent of John Adams’ Lollapallooza, with its bass saxophone riff repetitively snarled out and developed. The piece employs motivic repetition in a decidedly non-minimalistic way, and builds to several brutal peaks. It’s a virtuosic thrill-ride, to be sure—gripping, convincing, and a significant addition to the ever-growing literature for wind bands.

The Miami players are simply fantastic. There are a few very minor performance issues (mostly having to do with tuning), but they only serve to remind us that these are college students, after all! And barring that handful of moments, the technique and beauty of sound on display here is stunning. Gary Green leads the group through very musical performances that keep the listener’s attention. This isn’t just a great “band” disc; it’s an excellent program of contemporary music. With that in mind, this release may be an ideal entry point for those who’ve heard about the explosion of great music for winds in the last twenty years but haven’t known where to start. At Naxos price, it’s more than worth the time and money invested.

Barry Kilpatrick
American Record Guide, September 2010

Three big, relatively new band pieces by important composers and performed by a wind ensemble that consistently makes excellent recordings. It is unusual for the first sounds on a band album to be by solo violin, but that’s how Michael Daugherty (b 1954) opens his two-movement, 20-minute Ladder to the Moon. Composed in 2006 for the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, it is scored for violin with pairs of oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns, plus double bass and a percussionist. Daugherty’s inspiration was Georgia O’Keeffe’s late-1920s paintings of New York City. While we cannot really hear what those stylish paintings show, we can hear a hard-edged quality, and we can hear moments with an urban feel. We also hear an excellent account by University of Miami faculty violinist Glenn Basham with an outstanding ensemble. The moments that grab me are where this relatively small ensemble makes big, beefy, perfectly tuned and blended chords.

This is the second recording of the Trombone Concerto (2007) by David Maslanka (b 1943), a very sad piece that is dedicated to the memory of a friend who died while Maslanka was writing it...It would be best not to be in a hurry when you listen to it—its three movements last 35 minutes and include long periods of utter torpor. UM faculty trombonist Tim Conner...delivers a stirring performance. The piece also includes much for a solo cellist—not named.

Christopher Rouse (b 1949) called his one-movement, 16-minute piece Wolf Rounds (2006) because it sounds better than Loops, which aptly describes the compositional process where materials are repeated until they change into something else. If you listen carefully, you can sometimes hear it—someone plays something and repeats it a few times, and then it gradually changes. The thing is, when lots of those loops are happening simultaneously, it mostly sounds like complexity that grows and subsides. At 9:23, jackhammer passages set off a wild and inexorable drive to a ferocious finish.

As expected, fine readings by the Frost Wind Ensemble of the University of Miami. Excellent sonics.

Merlin Patterson
Fanfare, September 2010

The wind ensemble at the University of Miami was founded in 1965 by the great Frederick Fennell of Eastman Wind Ensemble fame and has long held a well-deserved place among the most celebrated university-level wind bands in the United States. Under its current conductor, Gary Green, the band has released a distinguished series of recordings, first on the Albany label and now on Naxos.

Michael Daugherty has made quite a splash on the classical music scene over the past 20 years. The recipient of numerous commissions and performances by major orchestras, as well as a plethora of awards and prizes, Daugherty has been one of the most highly acclaimed composers of his generation. The composer tells us that Ladder to the Moon is a “musical perspective on skyscrapers” and was “inspired by the urban landscapes of Georgia O’Keefe…who lived and painted in Manhattan before moving to New Mexico in 1934.” With its economical scoring for solo violin, pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and horns, plus double bass and percussion, the two-movement work is ripe with attractive ideas, gorgeous instrumental colors, and a wide array of textures. Violinist Glenn Basham performs his solo role with consummate musicianship. For me, it is easily the most engaging work on the disc.

In Fanfare 33:3, I offered a fairly extensive discussion of David Maslanka’s music in general, and of the Trombone Concerto in particular. In that issue, I reviewed the work on an Albany (TROY 1132) disc performed by the Illinois State University Wind Symphony conducted by Stephen Steele with soloists Stephen Parsons, trombone, and Adriana La Rosa Ranson, cello. I will not repeat myself here, except to say that this performance is in every way superior to that earlier effort. Trombonist Tim Conner plays with a velvety smooth tone, fluid and supple phrasing, and spot-on intonation, while the sadly uncredited cellist is hampered by none of the tonal wiriness that hindered Ranson’s performance of this vital role in the work. And as well as Steele’s Illinois band played, it is bettered by the Miami players. Green’s interpretation seems a bit more cohesive as well...The playing by the Frost Wind Ensemble of the University of Miami is first-rate throughout and conductor Gary Green navigates all three works in persuasive interpretations. Clear, resonant sound and informative notes complete the package.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, May 2010

Three very different 21st century works from composers working in the new world of American tonality. Rejecting everything that emanated from the Second Viennese School, they are directing us down a path that is far more congenial to audiences, yet is progressive enough in seeking new sonorities. Michael Daugherty’s Ladder to the Moon, couples a musical response to paintings by Georgia O’Keefe, Night, New York and Looking Up, using the unusual combination of violin (played by Glenn Basham), wind octet, double bass and percussion. The result is music you are quickly hooked on, setting the scene with the twinkling lights of New York’s skyscrapers. while the second picture is a scherzo looking up from ground level. Rouse’s Wolf Rounds—which gives the disc its nameis an extension on minimalism, repeated phrases circle round with others emerge from them and join to form the most elaborate patterns. Following this progression is enormously interesting and at the same time pleasing to the ear. The most extensive score is the Concerto for Trombone and Wind Ensemble by David Maslanka. It had been a long projected score given impetus by the untimely death of a mutual friend of the composer, the soloist, Tim Conner, and the band’s conductor, Gary Green. The opening movement, Requiem, is a very moving tribute, its slow tempo allowing the soloist to explore his instrument’s most creamy tone. It is also unusually scored for orchestral winds, piano, double bass, percussion and solo cello. If that opening is something special, the remaining movements move more closely to a conventional brass band mode. Wolf Rounds has taken the Frost Wind Ensemble just outside their comfort zone, but elsewhere they show they can compare with the wind sections of major American symphony orchestras, while the 2007 recording is a top quality product.

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