TRANSFORMATIONS / SCHULLER: Concerto No. 2 for Contrabass Tuba & Symphony Orchestra / Aaron Tindall, tuba; Ithica College Symphony Orchestra; Jeffery Meyers, conductor / STOCKHAUSEN: Harmonien / Aaron Tindall, tuba / WILSON: Concerto for Tuba and Wind Ensemble / Aaron Tindall, tuba; Ithica College Wind Ensemble; Stephen Peterson, conductor / LANG: Are You Experienced? / Aaron Tindall, tuba; Steven Stucky, narrator; Ithica College Chamber Orchestra; Jeffery Meyers, conductor / Bridge 9471
Imagine my surprise when I received two CDs from Bridge to review, this one and the Eighth Symphony of Charles Wuorinen. I expected to enjoy the Wuorinen disc but wasn’t sure about this one. A collection of tuba concertos? Really? Well, as it turned out, I wasn’t at all crazy about Wuorinen’s symphony but this recording absolutely blew me away.
It’s not just that Tindall, who is assistant professor of tuba and euphonium at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music (wow…you mean there’s a better tuba player in Miami who is the senior professor?), and has been an orchestral soloist throughout the world, has a phenomenal technique including the ability to sustain trills in the upper register. He is also an interesting interpreter, able to make the tuba play lyrically like a trombone when called upon. In addition, it turns out that all of the music on this CD is interesting and engaging, even the piece by Karlheinz Stockhausen!
We begin, however, with a tremendous piece by the late Gunther Schuller. Those who have read my book From Baroque to Bop and Beyond (see below) know that I liked Schuller’s earlier third-stream music to a certain extent but felt that much of it was too fussy and not really very imaginative. This late work, written in 2008, catches Schuller in a very creative frame of mind. In fact, and I mean no disrespect to Tindall here, I found the writing for orchestra even more interesting than the writing for the soloist. This doesn’t mean the solo part is poorly constructed; it’s not; but to my ears it sounds like (pardon the expression) filler material to what is essentially an outstanding orchestral work with many unexpected twists and turns. The solo tuba part, which is highly virtuosic, sits atop this brilliant cake like frothy frosting, but Tindall makes the most of this by playing with consistent high energy and even a touch of humor. Humor? From a tuba? You bet!
Stockhausen described Harmonien as a piece divided into five large sections, each made from a 25-note series. As the composer described it, it came into being “from successions of melody groups, each of which has a different tempo, rhythm and register.” All of which is well and good and fine, but the proof of any piece of music is in the listening, not the theory of it, and I enjoyed Harmonien because it was engaging and not dense and ugly like so many of Stockhausen’s earlier works.
Dana Wilson’s Concerto for Tuba and Wind Ensemble (2013) is dedicated to Aaron Tindall. What I found really curious about this work—which I enjoyed immensely—is that by writing the three movements in different musical styles while using similar thematic material. The first movement of this concerto, “Freely steady,” starts off with a duet between tuba and French horn over a cushion of woodwinds and piano, but then moves ito a truly lovely section that uses the tuba in the lyrical, elegiac quality I referred to earlier in this review before ending in an extremely agile final section. Tindall is pushed even further into the direction of lyricism in the second movement, “Plaintively singing,” but for me, personally, my heart leapt when I heard the very exciting and jazzy final movement, “Strict time.” We always tend to doubt that classically-trained musicians can swing in a jazz setting, and I would say that unless your name is Don Butterfield this usually goes double for classical tubists, but Tindall really swings here!
The CD ends with a really wacky piece, David Lang’s Are You Experienced? (1987-89). Although those of us who grew up in the 1960s will immediately recognize this as the title of Jimi Hendrix’s debut album from 1967, the music doesn’t draw on anything he played on that LP but rather an allusion to elements of his style such as the drone-like chords, single note repeated phrases and rhythmic patterns. As critic Mark Swed stated, “Hendrix’s song is the experience of losing your mind to pleasure; Lang’s is about simply losing your mind.” I think you’ll find yourself laughing, as I did, at the very opening where the narrator talks about being hit on the head, interspersed with staccato chords like hammer blows on the cranium. All that went through my mind (weirdo that I am) was Monty Python’s old skit about “Getting Hit on the Head Lessons”: “Just put your hands on your head and cry, WHAAAA!HH?” Of course, there’s much more to this wacky yet imaginative piece than that, such as the weird dance in the second movement where the tuba plays in the wrong key and the cadenza is for electric tuba(!), but you get the idea. Later on, when “On Being Hit on the Head” is reprised, Lang takes the listener through surrealistic passages where you wonder if you’re hearing “the voice of God” in the narration or a variation on the old “Duck and cover” command to “Drop” from the 1950s. It’s one of those pieces that has more srructure than first meets the ear, yet which remains fresh on repeated hearings because it is so innovative.
All in all, then, this is a fascinating and highly enjoyable album, one in which the whole is even more enjoyable than the individual parts all by themselves. “Transformations,” indeed!
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley