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Ronald E. Grames
Fanfare, May 2011

Strange Humors is the second Rutgers Wind Ensemble release in Naxos’s valuable Wind Band Classics series. Fanfares and Overtures, the first, consists of works by prominent composers of the mid to late 20th century. Merlin Patterson reviewed that release for Fanfare in issue 33:3, finding it a fine set of performances only occasionally compromised by some dicey intonation and slack rhythms. Fair enough. The Rutgers band is not quite in the top echelon of university ensembles occupied by the likes of Eastman, Michigan, and Indiana, but it is an excellent student ensemble boasting some outstanding players when the recordings for these two discs were made. For collectors looking for this particular combination of pieces by contemporary composers, this CD can be safely recommended even though, as with the first release, some of these performances would not be first choices.

The Michael Daugherty works are by fame and substance the core of the program. Raise the Roof, a bold, playful, and ultimately Latin-jazzy salute to Notre Dame, the Empire State Building, and other architectural wonders, was written for the Detroit Symphony in 2003. An excellent recording of the premiere appears on Naxos. This concerto for timpani and orchestra in the form of a double variation was arranged by the composer for wind band in 2007 on a commission by the University of Michigan Symphonic Band and director Michael Haithcock. Their recording, on the Equilibrium label, is still the gold standard, technically and interpretively. The Michigan group better conveys the wit of the work, builds the climax with greater inevitability, and demonstrates some truly amazing precision and virtuosity: those horns, for instance, and that glissando before the cadenza. Rutgers gives them a good run for the money, though, and the unnamed Rutgers player really wails in the important trumpet solo. There is little to choose between timpanist Todd Quinlan and the Michigan soloist, Andre Dowell. Both are impressive, even if Quinlan struggles a bit with pitching in that devilish cadenza. This is, all in all, a strong reading of a piece that succeeds in raising the roof.

Brooklyn Bridge, Daugherty’s “panoramic clarinet concerto” in four movements representing views from the bridge toward the four compass points, is an even better work. It has now been recorded twice for Naxos. I gave the first one, by the Columbus State University Wind Ensemble, a nod in 33:5, especially for clarinetist John Bruce Yeh’s work. Rutgers faculty member Maureen Hurd is a good soloist, but sounds stiff next to Yeh, and even more so when compared to Michael Wayne, who premiered the work with the University of Michigan Symphonic Band in 2005. Their recording, on the same CD as Raise the Roof, is masterly. Neither Naxos version has quite the measure of this rich, subtle, and very touching score. I miss, for instance, the Michiganders’ unforced introspection in the view toward the Statue of Liberty (South), but the difference is most telling in the final (North) movement where Daugherty pays tribute to jazz great Artie Shaw. Hurd doesn’t swing very convincingly, and it is difficult for the band to do so if the soloist can’t.

Berz and musicians are more successful in the other two, less familiar, works on the disc. John Mackey, in Strange Humors, cleverly combines Western concert band instrumentation with West African drumming and Northeastern African music; think belly dancing to an Arabic jazz band. Originally written in 1998 for string quartet and djembe—that version can be heard on Mackey’s website,—it was choreographed for the Parsons Dance Company during Mackey’s tenure as music director. This wind-band version premiered in 2006. The English horn and djembe soloists are particularly impressive in the quiet opening, and the band as a whole builds an overwhelming climax that could seem like part of some 1960s spy movie score if it weren’t for the sophistication and skill with which it is performed here.

Then there is the first commercial recording of James Syler’s 1988 The Hound of Heaven, a work inspired by the poem of the same name by Victorian English poet Francis Thompson. It is at first a disquieting work, wildly eclectic in its dramatic depiction of pursuit, escape, and eventual capture. Wind chimes always sound hackneyed to me, and here is no exception, but that aside I think that Syler has nicely captured the dark spirit of Thompson’s allegorical poem. My favorite version, by the Northern Illinois University Wind Ensemble, is available on the MusicEducator’s DR label as a download. In its more understated approach, it comes closer to the mystical beauty of Thompson’s verse, but Berz’s weightier reading is moving, as well, and has the practical virtue of easier availability. The Scriabinesque trumpet solos that act as transitions are again well taken by his fine principal. The exposed woodwind playing is notably well done. The transcendent final section, corresponding to the revelation that the pursuing hound is actually God offering grace to the desperate hare, is performed with great sensitivity. It is a touching ending to a rewarding disc.

Stephen Estep
American Record Guide, May 2011

whirls between drama, pathos, tenderness, the eternal search for happiness in the wrong places, the consequent tragedy, disorientation…This is well-written music, and the playing is good…

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Rutgers University Libraries, March 2011

Maureen Hurd is a featured soloist in this Naxos recording of Michael Daugherty’s clarinet concerto Brooklyn Bridge, performed with The Rutgers Wind Ensemble conducted by William Berz. The CD was recorded in March 2008 and was released in December 2010. The CD presents four engaging works rich with cross-cultural allusions. Daugherty, who won this year’s Grammy award for Best Classical Composition for Deus Ex Machina and is on the faculty of the University of Michigan, describes Brooklyn Bridge this way: “As I have lingered and walked across the Brooklyn Bridge over the years, the stunning vistas of the New York skyline have inspired me to compose a panoramic clarinet concerto. Like the four cables of webs of wire and steel that hold the Brooklyn Bridge together, my ode to this cultural icon is divided into four movements. Each movement of the clarinet concerto is a musical view from the Brooklyn Bridge. In the final movement of the concerto, I also imagine Artie Shaw, the great jazz swing clarinetist of the 1940s, performing with his orchestra in the once glorious Rainbow Room on the sixty-fifth floor of the Rockefeller Center.”

David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2011

Four works to demonstrate the outstanding wind ensemble from The State University of New Jersey, one of most critically acclaimed groups in the United States. From the snake-like thematic material that inspired John Mackey’s Strange Humors to the spiritual journey of a soul seeking in God’s healing balm expressed in James Syler’s The Hound of Heaven, this is a high impact programme.Two substantial works come from Michael Daugherty, one of today’s most eminent and prolific American composers. His percussion works have been recorded by Evelyn Glennie and the Colorado Symphony on a previous Naxos disc, and here we have a timpani and wind band version of Raise the Roof, a score originally created for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. It offers a quite blatant exhibition of Todd Quinian’s outstanding playing, the constant change of pitch bringing a technical display as the instrument. Brooklyn Bridge was composed two years earlier in 2005, and looks at the famous Manhattan bridge from north, south, east and west. Often rhythmically aggressive, it features a solo clarinet, played here by Maureen Hurd, her parental relationship with that bridge detailed in the accompanying booklet. She has a massive cadenza as part of the view from the west, then, ‘letting her hair down’, becomes a fine jazz clarinettist in the concluding picture. The band’s playing under the direction of William Berz, is, by any standard, highly impressive. Punchy sound quality.

Film Music: The Neglected Art, December 2010

My first introduction to John Mackey in the work Strange Humors is part of a new Naxos #8572529 release in their Wind Band Classics Series. The works are performed by the Rutgers Wind Ensemble conducted by William Berz and also feature compositions of Michael Daugherty and James Syler as well as this unique 2006 piece orchestrated by Mackey for wind ensemble from the original string quartet work from 1998. After listening to this several times it is hard for this reviewer to imagine it not having the brass and wind instruments. Perhaps I’m mistaken but as a string quartet piece it would have lost so much of its impact.

Mackey has combined the percussion of Africa with the oriental mystery of the Middle East with a solo from first the English horn and then a saxophone. It ends in big band fashion featuring sliding trombones and dissonant brass riffs in a 5 plus minute opus. This work is a true example of blending three or four styles in one relatively easy to listen to work. Well done!

Raise the Roof, from Michael Daugherty, a work for wind ensemble and timpani was written in 2007 and performed by the University of Michigan band. It was originally commissioned and performed by the Detroit Symphony in 2003. The timpani part is  huge in  this work as it is allowed to explore melody as well as rhythm in this homage to buildings in New York. The piece begins with a melody from the tuba followed by a second melody from the woodwinds and the timpani. The wind melody is somewhat mysterious, a bit oriental, and more time is devoted to it than the first melody. The brass melody is somewhat somber from the tuba but as it evolves the brass especially the trombones take over and make it majestic. The work ends with the two melodies being blended into one. Todd Quinlan, the timpani soloist, does a fine job of melding the two sections of the orchestra as well as providing his own interpretation of the woodwind melody.

Brooklyn Bridge, also a work of Michael Daugherty, is a four movement clarinet concerto nicely performed by Maureen Hurd. Each movement is a view from different sides of the bridge with the final “North” movement being a nice jazz riff written with Artie Shaw a swing clarinetist supreme of the thirties, forties, and fifties in mind. This work premiered in 2005 by the Michigan band. The work in addition to the flavor of buildings has a South American flavor.

The Hound of Heaven is from 1988 and is based on a symbolic poem of the same name by Francis Thompson. The six movement work is religious in nature with many somber and dissonant passages. Beginning the work is a reference to the famous Holst work The Planets, a movement of war. The second movement switches to a quiet religious cue with some beautiful brass chords not unlike something you might hear in a Star Trek film or a Gil Evans arrangement. Throughout the third and fourth movement there is marvelous playing with an emphasis on brass chords. The conclusion is one of faith and hope. A solitary trumpet is the instrument that bridges one movement to another melding them together in a complete package.

This CD is a nice introduction to works you’ve likely not heard before and is well worth exploring further. Available as a download from Classics online.

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