American Music for Wind Ensemble
* Stamp: Symphony No. 1 -- In Memoriam of David Diamond (2006)
* Krumenauer: Blue on Red (2005)
* Maslanka: Symphony No. 2 (1985)
Karyl Carlson (soprano),
Illinois State University Wind Symphony/Stephen K. Steele.
Albany Records TROY996 Total time: 72:35
Summary for the Busy Executive: Symphonies of quotations.
Now that tonality has become respectable again, people have greeted it
like the New Jerusalem. I strongly suspect that the tonal-vs.-atonal
wars of the previous century will have as much relevance to future music
as the Brahms-vs.-Wagner wars of the Nineteenth Century had on Modernism.
After all, try as some have to make either side of the argument, there's
nothing aesthetically better a priori about one or the other. In the
end, all we really have is a specific work of art in front of us, and
we have to arrive at our judgments within its context.
In other words, a tonal work doesn't mean a great work. If you can't
imagine a bad piece of tonal music (or a good atonal piece, for that
matter), you haven't imagined hard enough.
The program on this CD recalled these musings, familiar to me after
many years of thought. All the works are tonal, and all take different
approaches to composition. Nevertheless, the big problem of any composition
is how to say something both new (or at least personal) and worth saying.
Jack Stamp, one of the United States' leading bandmasters, has written
his first symphony "in memoriam of" American composer David Diamond,
whom Stamp considers one of his mentors. By the way, the subtitle should
be either "In memoriam David Diamond" or "In memory of David Diamond,"
rather than this lame conflation. But that's just a minor annoyance.
The symphony uses themes from Diamond's Third (finale) and Fourth (first
movement), as well as from Ravel's string quartet (scherzo). It turns
out that the Diamond themes are related, so the symphony hangs together
over a span longer than a single movement. To Stamp's credit, he has
not imitated either Diamond or Ravel, and his scoring shows a mastery
of wind-ensemble sound. For me, the neatest part is the scherzo, where
Stamp cleverly adapts the chief theme of the Ravel string quartet's first
movement from strings to band. Unfortunately, Stamp's music comes off
as second-hand Copland, not just in the slow movement, where Stamp
explicitly appropriated Forties Copland and the musical models are clearly
Our Town and The Red Pony, but throughout the symphony. I don't complain
that Stamp appropriates Copland's idiom. After all, Bruckner appropriates
Wagner. Unfortunately, for all his craft, Stamp neither gives us something
as good as Copland (and what would be the odds?) nor directs the idiom
down new paths. The symphony comes across as a composition exercise
("compose a minuet in the style of Mozart"), rather than as a personal
If Stamp's symphony is assured and impersonal, Red and Blue seems to
have the opposite problem. Kevin Krumenauer, a native of Georgia, studied
in my home town of Cleveland, Ohio, which predisposed me to like the
work, because I'm that shallow. In his early thirties, he seems to me
to suffer from the classic young-composer's problem: how to find his own
voice. Red and Blue takes an original approach, but not a particularly
convincing one. Much of it strikes me as mere note-spinning. Krumenauer's
idiom seems to avoid the language of others without really convincing
you that it's his. In short, he has said something original, but not
particularly worth saying.
The Second Symphony of David Maslanka, who studied with American composer
Joseph Wood and taught Krumenauer, solves the tonal composer's dilemma
in spades. He takes from many other composers and winds up sounding
like himself. Maslanka has the outstanding ability to turn classical
forms into individual dramas. The first movement, for example, is in
sonata form, but that winds up almost beside the point. At the outset,
Maslanka sets two opposing ideas against each other: a musical chaos
vs. long chains of melody and chorale. The musical chaos derives from
Minimalist textures, while the melodies and chorales proceed in a
neo-Romantic way and tend to pull the music into order. Sometimes chaos
(or complexity) gets the upper hand, sometimes the order. Maslanka makes
us care about the outcome, which arrives at the recapitulation. The
order returns, minus the chaos. However, the very ending hardly settles
into anything comfortable. Instead, we get an enigmatic coda which
leaves us up in the air.
The second movement begins with a solo sax intoning the spiritual
"Deep River." Other winds add their licks in what comes across as
free rhythm, like a bunch of people sitting around in a Black church.
Maslanka suspends us in a no-man's land between cohesion and entropy --
the rhythm tearing at the structure of the tune, the tune imposing a
minimum of order. Then things fall apart, and we get a wild section
where apparently anything goes, at any time. As the movement proceeds,
however, one notices what sounds like a passacaglia bass underpinning
the frenzy. The bass becomes more and more apparent until the end, when
the composer once again plunges us into austere uncertainty -- a passage
for what sounds like a combination of glockenspiel and high-pitched
musical saw. A note chimes and "bends," as if the percussion imitated
a blues slide.
The finale, by far the longest movement, once again hangs together in
sonata form, and once again sonata form seems beside the point, if not
downright goofy. The movement feels like a Shostakovich rondo on turbo
overdrive, with a near-obsession on the wood block. Three themes dominate
the movement, and Maslanka develops them not only singly but together,
throwing one against the other. Again, Maslanka seems drawn to frenzy,
but this time without approaching chaos. The order here intensifies
everything. The spring gets wound so tight that you begin to wonder
when the composer will let go. Despite its joyous quality, or rather
because of its unrelenting high spirits, a disturbing quality sneaks in,
as in Peewee Herman or the smile of Batman's Joker. Maslanka loves to
inhabit ambiguous emotional spaces. Here, the traditionally-affirming
finale twists and grimaces in a fun-house mirror.
Illinois State does well, despite intonation problems in solos.
The band's ensemble is superb and the rhythms sharp, especially in the
Maslanka finale -- no mean feat. It seems that the better wind symphonies,
both British and American, comprise students these days rather than pros.
ISU has a nice little series going on Albany, consisting of both wind
classics and new work. Check 'em out.
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