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Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Transcriptions for wind band
See end of review for track-listing
University of South Carolina Wind Ensemble/Scott Weiss
rec. 20-23 0ctober 2011, Roger Center for the Performing Arts, Columbia, South Carolina, USA
NAXOS 8.573056 [63:22]

I had intended to review this CD together with an Alto disc of American music for brass, played by London Symphony Brass. That seemed to make sense, as the latter contains several Bernstein arrangements, but minutes into this Naxos release it was clear that a separate review was required. I’ve been astounded by the extremely high standards of US university bands; indeed, I made the first volume of the New England Conservatory Percussion Ensemble’s American Music for Percussion series one of my picks of the year for 2011 (review).
 
Happily, this new collection of Bernstein transcriptions from the University of South Carolina Wind Ensemble only reinforces my admiration for these student groups. Led by Scott Weiss, who also teaches conducting at USC, they have made an auspicious start to what I hope will be an ongoing project for Naxos. From the thrilling - and jaunty - JFK fanfare it’s clear the standard of playing and recording are excellent. Not only that, the quality of all these transcriptions is uniformly excellent.

Clare Grundman’s take on the overture to Candide is magical, and very faithful to the moods and colours of the original. Intonation is rock-solid, rhythms are taut and Weiss ensures momentum and interest never flag. As for Jay Bocook’s suite from On the Waterfront, it’s remarkably hard hitting, although the moodier interludes - tr. 5, Moving forward with warmth, for instance - are just as impressive. Goodness, what passionate music-making this is, and how intensely focused these players are, even in the score’s wild outbursts. The Naxos engineers have done well too, and there’s none of the fatigue-inducing edge that so often afflicts recordings of this kind.
 
The oh-so-danceable rhythms of Marice Stith’s On the Town are pin-sharp, and the music’s jazzy underpinnings are naturally phrased. The sometimes symphonic weight of Lonely Town - Pas de Deux is also well conveyed, as is the number’s more melancholic cast. Times Square 1944 is a riotous assembly of toe-tapping tunes and a devil-may-care delivery that had me roaring for more. Obligingly, the band serves up Grundman’s lovely Divertimento, whose winsome little Waltz is a delight. The Samba - with its bongos and bass-drum sign-off - is high-revving, but it never threatens to blow a gasket. Weiss knows just how far to push this music - and his players - yet the music-making always comes across as fresh and spontaneous.
 
For those who witnessed Lenny’s unforgettable LSO concert performance of Candide at the Barbican all those years ago - Christa Ludwig, with castanets, memorably OTT - these excerpts will surely induce a rush of nostalgia. Grundman’s arrangements are exemplary, and the anarchic wit of the originals never fails to shine through. The mighty Auto-da-fé is a sonic tour de force that leads into an exhilarating rendition of Glitter and Be Gay. Far from piling Ossa on Pelion, these two big, consecutive numbers never overloads the listener. As for the naïve optimism of Let Our Garden Grow, it seldom fails to effect me; indeed, this gloriously expansive performance moved me to tears, as much for the sheer brilliance of these young players and their director as for the memory of that all-round musical genius, Leonard Bernstein.
 
Wind-band playing of the highest order; what a joyful noise!
 
Dan Morgan
http://twitter.com/mahlerei


Track listing
Fanfare No. 1 for the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy (1961) (arr. Sid Ramin) [0:42]
Candide: Overture (1956/1986) (arr. Clare Grundman) [4:51]
On the Waterfront Suite (1954/2010) (arr. Jay Bocook)
Andante (with dignity) - Presto barbaro [2:50]
Adagio - Allegro molto agitato - Alla breve (Poco piu mosso) - Presto [4:52]
Andante largamente - More flowing - Still more flowing - Poco meno mosso - Lento [2:21]
Moving forward, with warmth - Largamente - A tempo - Calmato - Andante come prima - Sempre avanti, with intensity - Ancora piu mosso [4:55]
Allegro non troppo, molto marcato - Poco piu sostenuto - Moving forward - Meno mosso [2:45]
A tempo [2:09]
On the Town: 3 Dance episodes (1945/1971) (arr. Marice Stith)
No. 1 - The Great Lover: Allegro pesante [1:59]
No. 2 - Lonely Town: Pas de Deux: Andante sostenuto [3:24]
No. 3. Times Square 1944: Allegro [5:01]
Divertimento (1980/1984) (arr. Clare Grundman)
Sennets and Tuckets: Allegro non troppo, ma con brio [1:25]
Waltz: Allegretto, con grazia [2:00]
Mazurka: Mesto [molto moderato] [1:58]
Samba: Allegro giusto [1:01]
Turkey Trot: Allegretto, ben misurato [2:09]
Sphinxes: Adagio lugubre [0:43]
Blues: Slow blues tempo [1:42]
In memoriam: March, ‘The BSO Forever’: Andante [3:59]
Candide Suite (1956/1993) (arr. Clare Grundman)
The Best of All Possible Worlds [2:02]
Westphalia Chorale and Battle Scene [1:52]
Auto-da-fé [1:59]
Glitter and Be Gay [3:07]
Make Our Garden Grow [3:36]



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