NTWS’s “Inventions” a Potpourri of Remarkable Music

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INVENTIONS / WILLIAMS: For the President’s Own. WOLFGANG: 3 Short Stories. BROUGHTON: In the World of Spirits. MACKEY: The Ringmaster’s March. Wine-Dark Sea. DAUGHERTY: Winter Dreams / North Texas Wind Symphony; Eugene Migliardo Corporon, conductor / GIA Wind Works CD1004

This is one of those potpourri-type albums that college wind bands put out from time to time, generally trying to mix “standard” wind band fare (marches, festive overtures, etc.) with more artistic pieces. In this particular case they were fortunate because one of the standard-type works, For the President’s Own, was written by John Williams who is one of our finest light music composers, and another, 3 Short Stories, was composed by jazz-classical hybrid composer Gernot Wolfgang, whose work I have had the good fortune to review last year on this blog.

The Williams piece, composed for the “president’s own” United States Marine Band. Typically of his best work, it juxtaposes jaunty themes with intriguing chord changes and imaginative scoring. My lone complaint is that it was really too brief, but at least Williams didn’t overload the listener with superfluous music.

Wolfgang’s 3 Stories starts auspiciously with Uncle Bebop, a terrific piece that, if you didn’t know better, you could mistake for a jazz piece from the 1950s. The North Texas orchestra plays it with not only fine technical skill but also the right amount of swing. It’s such a pleasure to hear a wind band (other than the U.S. Armed Forces jazz ensemble) that knows how to swing. Wolfgang’s piece wends its way along, developing its boppish theme in strict classical form, ending with a “teaser” coda that has a big pause before the final two chords. The second piece, Rays of Light, is more impressionistic and less jazz-oriented, yet also reveals a fine musical mind. Here, the music is very lightly scored, featuring a fine saxophone solo by Brian Horton around which the various winds—playing mostly in their lower registers—wend around it. With Latin Dance, Wolfgang moves into the realm of such groups as Machito and his Orchestra, the famed Afro-Cuban band of the late 1940s. The difference is that Wolfgang’s music ls less heavy on the Latin beat and more playful, with swirling clarinets and flutes, until an alto sax solo by Colin Crawford is head, reminiscent of the kind of work Charlie Parker did with Machito. Horton joins Crawford for a few bars of sax duet near the end of the chorus, followed by some pretty good Latin percussion, then the ride-out by the reeds and brass.

Bruce Broughton’s In the World of Spirits begins promisingly enough, with imaginative swirling high winds and punchy brass. The tempo relaxes as more winds are heard, but the playful mood picks up again with staccato trumpets. Eventually a lively, rather jumpy 3/4 is established, followed by a mysterious, quiet passage for sub-tone clarinets and miscellaneous rhythm instruments, with the other reeds slowly adding into the mixture. My sole complaint of this piece was that it repeated material already heard, dressed up in different orchestration, and wasn’t quite interesting enough to sustain its 11-minute length.

The first piece by John Mackey here is The Ringmaster’s March, written as the final movement of his suite The Soul Has Many Motions. It’s a lively enough piece, with a few harmonic and rhythmic twists and turns to make it at least interesting enough to get through its brief (three-minute) length, occasionally using what I would call “march cliches” to an almost comical effect.

Michael Daugherty’s Winter Dreams is a musical tribute to the famed Iowa artist Grant Wood, written as a tribute to the composer’s father. It’s an exceptionally lovely piece in the correct sense of the word, using an exceptionally light touch and delicate wind colors to “paint” his image of the famed artist, and can easily be appreciated for its softness and great imagination without having to conjure up images of American Gothic or Wood’s other paintings. Indeed, I found this to be the most complex piece on the CD, eventually moving to a point where clarinets play a jaunty in double time while the soft wind melody continues in the background, after which the composer develops his material with equal lightness and a touch of mystery. A wonderful flute solo comes and goes just before the end.

Mackey’s second piece, Wine-Dark Sea, is the longest work on this CD, a three-part suite commissioned by the University of Texas at Austin and premiered there in February 2014. In the liner notes, the composer explains that the music is based on the Odyssey. In the first movement (“Hubris”), Odysseus fills his ship with the spoils of war but “carried another, more dangerous cargo: pride.” What I found interesting about this piece was its use of a Latin-jazz sort of rhythm a couple of minutes into it, over which is eventually laid double-time figures played by flutes, trumpets and other winds that goes against the underlying beat. There’s a certain galumphing, heavy quality about the music that put me in mind of some of the things the Stan Kenton band did in its heyday. The difference lay in the frequent use of the snare drum to play press rolls as if in a marching band. Interestingly, when the music turns delicate a harp is used, but not in typical harp style; rather, it plays ascending, oddly-spaced arpeggios. Eventually the band falls away and we hear a pounding bass drum, followed by what sounds like vibraphone playing ambient sounds in the background. A forlorn English horn is heard, plaintively chanting, followed by what sounds like a bassoon. A soft muted trumpet is heard in the background as the strangely ominous mood continues softly in the foreground. The movement sort of fades out.

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Corporon with the North Texas Wind Symphony

The second movement, “Immortal Thread, So Weak,” begins with the harp playing in a more conventional mode, soft plucked chords establishing a fragmented theme before a forlorn clarinet is heard playing a new melody in front. Other instruments enter, one by one, until a rich but soft blend is heard. This movement is based on the song of a beautiful nymph who finds Odysseus near death on the shore of the island where she lives. The music is absolutely exquisite, creating and sustaining a remarkable mood via subtle changes in texture and harmony. Even when Mackey uses very close chords and tone clusters, his soft-grained textures remove all feelings of edginess from the listener; he or she is wrapped in a warm, comfortable space, even when the volume increases and more brass enters along with the winds. Wind band music has surely changed for the better since I was young!

The last movement, “The Attentions of Souls,” depicts that moment when Odysseus makes a sacrifice to the dead at the gates of the underworld. As he “cuts the throats of the sacrificial animals, the spirits of the dead swarm up.” This movement is an object-lesson in sound-painting of the highest order. Eventually the music becomes more animated as the spirits of the dead taunt and mock Odysseus. Words fail me to describe everything Mackey does here; this is music on a level with the finest creations of Mahler or Ligeti. Eventually, a “dance of the dead” enlivens the tempo, creating an imaginative atmosphere on par with Berlioz’ “Night of the Witches Sabbath.”

Thus we come to the end of this collection of “Inventions,” as the CD is so aptly titled. Get it, if only for the works of Wolfgang, Daugherty and Mackey…they are gems.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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