The programme of this excellent disc showcasing an outstandingly
fine American student wind band has been carefully thought out.
The booklet could serve as a model to others. For each of the
composers likely to be new to most of us a short biographical
sketch is included. This is followed by an introduction to the
recorded work by the composer himself. The recording is rich,
clear, and immediate to the point that the clicking of the brass
instruments’ valves can be heard in places.
The first piece on the disc is Tower Ascending by Wayne
Oquin. The work runs for almost exactly eight minutes, of which
the first four minutes are slow, with wide open American sonorities
reminiscent of composers such as Copland or Roy Harris. The
second half is fast and brilliant, closer to John Adams. The
title is a clue that the piece is meant to evoke the construction
of a skyscraper, and the composer explains how and why in a
fair amount of detail in the booklet. I don’t get it,
frankly, but then I rarely do, so maybe it’s me. In any
event it doesn’t really matter to much, as the piece is
brilliantly written for the medium, contains many very beautiful
sounds and comes to a most satisfyingly noisy conclusion. One
of the many surprises in the booklet is reading that Oquin,
who has composed here a piece as accessible as any you will
hear, had as one of his teachers a certain Milton Babbitt.
If I didn’t “get” the skyscraper connection
in Tower Ascending, I was totally at sea with the “wall”
connection in El Muro. Here is a taster of the thinking
behind the piece. “At a conceptual level, El Muro
is my response to how I feel about walls, whether these walls
exist in reality or in our minds.” He then expands upon
this in detail. I can only apologise to him, and to those who
manage to take this kind of thing seriously, for finding such
stuff risible. But if the composer is really thinking about
such matters, or sincerely trying to express feelings about
such matters, whilst he is placing crotchets and quavers on
the page, all I can say is that none of it comes out in the
music. The musical language is more advanced than that of the
Oquin, the opening bringing reminders of Stravinsky and Messiaen
to the Latin American stylistic elements the composer himself
acknowledges. It is diffuse, however, and in spite of some strikingly
effective passages I find the work only intermittently memorable,
and none too convincing from a formal point of view.
Street Song is the first music I have heard by Michael
Tilson Thomas. He composed it as a brass quintet in 1988, but
then arranged it for the brass players of the London Symphony
Orchestra, presumably whilst he was Chief Conductor. It is in
three linked sections, the first of which is rather like Hindemith
with a strong dash of Americana. The second is pensive with
lots of very close harmony, a feature of the work as a whole.
There is a fair amount of jazz in the third section, but this
is treated with great subtlety, and indeed restraint and impeccable
taste are features of this impressive short work. The music
of the three “songs” comes together near the end
in a beautifully scored and gentle coda. The performance is
remarkable, and only very occasionally does the suspicion that
odd notes here and there, especially in quiet chords, are not
placed squarely in the centre, betray the fact that we are listening
to young players and not a professional group.
The players clearly relish the rumbustious bustle of Vaughan
Williams’ Toccata Marziale, and play most sensitively
the sustained notes and chords of James Mobberley’s Words
of Love. The premise behind this piece is rather too personal
for this listener, and in any case, and sadly, the piece is
scuppered for me by the vibrato-heavy singing of Ellen Ritchey.
Anatoly Sheludyakov is the impressive soloist in Stravinsky’s
Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, his combative style
perfectly suited to the percussive nature of most of the work.
He is most competently supported by the young musicians, who
will surely have found the work a challenge, and very different
indeed in aims and in style from the rest of the programme.
The collection ends with a suitably imposing performance of
Copland’s celebrated Fanfare for the Common Man.