West Chester U Wind Ensemble Has “Second Thoughts”

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SECOND THOUGHTS / DANIELPOUR: Toward the Splendid City. BARBER: First Essay for Orchestra (arr. J. Levey). SCHUMAN: New England Triptych. DEL TREDICI: In Wartime / West Chester University Wind Ensemble; Andrew Yovziak, cond / Mark Masters 52989-MCD

The title of this CD refers to the fact that three of these four works were revised for wind band either by the composers themselves or under the direction of the composer (the Samuel Barber Essay). David Del Tredici’s In Wartime is the odd one out, as it was written for the Texas University Wind Band from the start. Richard Danielpour’s Toward the Splendid City, written in 1992 as a tribute to the New York Philharmonic, receives its world premiere recording on this disc.

Danielpour’s work is the most chipper and tonal of the group, but is also marked by unusually complex polyphony. I was surprised and delighted to hear such complexity from him at such an early point in his career. In the liner notes, he claims that, in his view, New York in the 1980s and early ‘90s was similar to Paris in the 1920s, a city at its most vibrant and optimistic—surely a result of the Reagan economic boom and the defeat of the USSR. The various lines and counter-lines in the music keep moving like a kaleidoscope, which holds the listener’s interest, and the moto perpetuo rhythm put me in mind of some of George Antheil’s music. In this revision for winds, Danielpour has done a remarkable job of focusing on instrumental color; indeed, this aspect of the score is another of its glories. I really liked it!

Barber’s First Essay for Orchestra, premiered by Arturo Toscanini and first recorded by Eugene Ormandy, remains one of the composer’s finest works. Joseph Levey’s band transcription, naturally, omits the deep string sound that originally opened the piece, replacing it, surprisingly enough, with clarinets playing in their low or chalumeau register rather than trombones, which I would have expected, as the use of low reeds takes the feeling of heaviness away from the music. Whether due to the scoring, Yovziak’s conducting or the recorded sound, however, the strong dynamic contrasts in the original piece, which are what drew me to it in the first place, are “smoothed out” here. It comes across as a much more pleasant piece whereas the original was very emotionally powerful (both under Toscanini and Ormandy, be it noted). I also found Yovziak’s tempi too fast, which also contributes to the performance’s glibness. Perhaps, with a conductor more sensitized to the work’s underlying drama (it was written in 1937-38, when Europe was on the brink of a World War), this arrangement would come off better.

William Schuman is, in my view, one of the most overlooked and forgotten of all great American composers. This arrangement of his famous New England Triptych is very clever; despite the upbeat mood of the music, it is very well written with several original touches. Once again, Yovziak conducts with a blithe spirit, quick tempi and lack of drama, but in this music such an approach is wholly appropriate.

Del Tredici’s two-movement suite In Wartime was composed in 2003 as a reaction to President George W. Bush’s pointless, money-wasting war with Iraq, surely one of the low points in American history. Seldom has so much money and manpower been wasted on so little of a result, and ironically this war had broad bipartisan Congressional approval. The opening Hymn is quixotic and somewhat ironic in nature, bringing out Del Tredici’s frustrations with the war’s supporters. He uses the old hymn Abide With Me as a basis, around which some pretty wild and crazy contrapuntal figures fly. The second movement, Wartime: Battlemarch continues the same mood, but becomes more aggressive, with strongly contrasting rhythms working against the initial theme, eventually transforming it into something both martial and ironic. In this work, Yovziak gives a very emotional interpretation indeed. Swirling clarinets, flutes and piccolos add to the melee as it nears its climax. This, too, is an excellent piece, superbly played.

Kind of a mixed bag, then. Good music throughout, with outstanding performances of the first and last pieces, but the Barber greatly disappointed me.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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