Here's another disc from my circa 2013 "unopened discs pile". This particular pile is extremely structurally unsound; I have them in my clothing closet, where they are towering and nestled halfway up the legs of my pants...one wrong move-one poor decision-one chosen pair of dark jeans-and it's all over ;) This catastrophe happens all the time with many piles. So, I got this disc for the Ewazen and the Plog works in particular (I do have an earlier recording of the Ewazen) and have not heard the Danielpour or Salfelder (new name to me) yet. About to do so now.
So, below I'm simply pasting what seems a good review from the Arkiv site:
As with many discs of concert band music, this one features an eclectic and intriguing mix of works in contrasting styles, three by well-established figures and one by a newcomer. Richard Danielpour himself hardly needs any introduction. His Icarus from 2009, written for the unusual combination of brass ensemble, two pianos, and percussion, takes its name from the ancient Greek legend of the boy who, with his father Daedalus, escaped imprisonment in the labyrinth of King Minos on Crete by means of wings made of bird feathers and wax, but fell to his death in the Aegean when he recklessly flew too close to the sun and his wings dissolved. The brief booklet notes state that although the myth provides “the background for this exciting work ... the music does not reflect a story line.” While the work is indeed exciting—almost incessantly violent in the syncopated fortissimo musical motives that constitute most of its content—and well constructed, it leaves me bemused as to any possible connection to the ancient story at all, either pictorially or metaphysically. It seems a far more fitting musical depiction of a scene of violent combat instead. However, taken purely as an abstract piece of music, it is quite engaging.
The centerpiece and eponymous work on this disc, Eric Ewazen’s Shadowcatcher from 1996 (the booklet mistakenly gives 1956 on the index page but gets the date right in the notes), for brass quintet and symphonic band, is an ambitious four-movement work of almost 35 minutes’ duration. “Shadow Catcher” is the name that Native Americans gave to the famed photographer and ethnologist Edward S. Curtis (1868–1952), who in the late 19th and early 20th centuries documented the lives of more than 80 tribes with over 40,000 photographs and over 10,000 wax cylinder recordings. Each movement is inspired by a particular photograph:
1) “Offering to the Sun” (Tewa, 1925)—Among the rock cliffs at the San Idelfonso Pueblo near Santa Fe, a tribal member offers prayerful supplication to the morning sunrise;
2) “Among the Aspens” (Chippewa, 1926)—A teepee stands within a grove of Aspen trees near a stream;
3) “The Vanishing Race” (Navaho, 1904)—A group of Indians on horseback, photographed in silhouette, slowly rides into the darkness, symbolizing an uncertain future;
4) “Dancing to Restore an Eclipsed Moon” (Kwakiutl, 1928)—This tribe of the Pacific Northwest coast believed that lunar eclipses occurred when a giant creature of the night sky swallowed the moon. However, the monster could be made to sneeze and disgorge the moon by the stench of a bonfire fueled with old clothes and hair. The photo captures a frenzied dance around such a bonfire.
Ewazen, a longtime professor of composition at Juilliard, is a gifted composer who writes music that remains thoroughly tonal and accessible to more general audiences without being condescending or slipping into banalities. Here, he employs a number of melodies and motives from Native American music, including the distinctive pentatonic scale patterns, and adroitly utilizes them to create larger movements of free-flowing variations without ever falling prey to the hoary clichés of film music for Hollywood westerns. While I quite enjoyed the work, the first couple times I listened through it I thought it a bit overlong for its contents, but with repeated hearings I become more and more convinced of its overall excellence. This is a major addition to the concert band repertoire.
Kathryn Salfelder, a young (b. 1987) and hence new compositional voice, is currently completing her doctorate at the New England Conservatory. Her Stylus Phantasticus was commissioned by the University Symphonic Band and premiered on February 17, 2013. The work’s title refers to a type of free-form composition found primarily in Baroque organ literature, and here Salfelder employs fragmented elements of Dieterich Buxtehude’s Toccata in D Minor, BuxWV155, for her thematic material in a Postmodernist musical pastiche. While Salfelder is clearly a talented composer, this piece strikes me as being considerably less than the sum of its parts, with a plethora of momentarily interesting effects never adding up to some more substantive unity.
Anthony Plog, a onetime member of trumpet sections in several orchestras in the USA and Sweden, has been a professor at the Staatliche Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg since 1993. Most of his compositions are for brass instruments, a genre to which he has made significant contributions. While his overall compositional style remains tonal, taking its point of departure from Stravinsky and Bartók, its vocabulary is considerably more dissonant than that of Ewazen. Like Ewazen’s Shadowcatcher , the Concerto 2010 is also scored for brass quintet and symphonic band. Its four movements, played without pause, virtually constitute a brief symphony, proportioned similarly to that of Prokofiev’s First but with the scherzo in second position. The first movement follows its stately slow introduction with an Allegro main section dominated by a skittering, agitated theme of rapidly running eighth and 16th notes, into which a jazz-like interlude momentarily intrudes, and then brings back the material of the slow introduction. The brief scherzo is dominated by rapid double-tonguing figures in the brass that take off from the theme of the preceding opening Allegro , backed by cascading woodwind runs and clattering marimba and woodblocks. A succeeding Adagio starts with a slow but flowing fugue tune, first stated on clarinets but gradually bringing in flutes and then brass. That is followed by a somewhat swifter, chattering second theme, closely related to the main theme of the Allegro section of the first movement, which at a quicker tempo them becomes the main motif of the Allegro finale, where marimba and woodblocks once again have a prominent supporting part. Overall I also greatly enjoyed this work, though the interludes of jazz in the first movement and of dissonant brass early in the finale strike me as ad hoc insertions lacking organic relations to any other facets of the work.
There are at least three other recordings of Shadowcatcher , and one apiece of Icarus and Concerto 2010 , whereas Stylus Phantasticus receives its debut recording here. I was unable to sample all of the alternatives, but compared to those I did hear I would say that the present disc equals or exceeds them for technical excellence and/or recorded sound. The Western Brass Quintet consists of faculty members of Western Michigan University; the Western Winds comprise that quintet along with a few other faculty members and a number of university students. Both of them and the larger University Symphonic Band are crackerjack ensembles that toss off even the most difficult passages with carefree insouciance, and they are showcased in ideally balanced recorded sound. The concert band repertoire continues to expand its footprint exponentially in the commercial recordings market, and this CD is a particularly fine entry; warmly recommended.