New Works for Wind Ensemble

NV6245.20190703044544

WINDSWEPT / JÄRVLEPP: Woodwind Quintet. DESENA: Sonorous Earth. MacDONALD: Stumpery. PEASLEE: Dirge & Second Line. KUHN: Variations on a Commoner Theme No. 1 / Arcadian Winds / Navona NV6245

Arcadian Winds, the Boston-based wind ensemble who specializes in new music, presents here a program of five pieces by five little-known composers: Jan Järvlepp, Ferdinando Desena, David MacDonald, Craig Peaslee and Kenneth Kuhn.

Of course, much of this music is written in the new accepted style of edgy, fast-paced figures with lots of syncopation. This has, apparently, become The New Normal. With that being said, some of the pieces here are fun to listen to. Järvlepp’s quintet opens with a movement titled “Rollercoaster”; I leave it to the reader’s imagination as to what the music sounds like. If you guessed fast, syncopated figures with lots of eighth=note trills by the flute and clarinet, you win a Scherman-Peabody Award. Just send $30 to me c/o this blog and I’ll mail it to you.

Not much happens to the theme in “Rollercoaster,” and what does happen is predictable; but, as I say, it’s a fun piece to listen to. But I must give a huge thumbs up to French hornist Clark Matthews who, going against current performance practice, has a bright tone with some metal in it. He doesn’t stick his hand all the way into the bell to muffle the sound and I, for one, really appreciate this. The second movement, “Solitude,” features a quite lovely theme, scored imaginatively for the quintet. The melody is played by bassoonist Janet Underhill, who has a particularly lovely tone on her instrument, while the clarinet and flute interject figures around her. The development is slow and, again, fairly simple and minimal. Near the five-minute mark the music stops and Matthews plays a beautiful horn solo before the winds coalesce for the finale. The last movement, “Pyrotechnics,” is pretty much self-explanatory. Again, lots of fast-flying figures, attractive to the ear and fun to listen to, and this time Järvlepp develops his music with a bit more interest. There’s a nice use of syncopation in the oboe-bassoon figures to underscore the swirling sound of the flute and clarinet up top.

Desena’s Sonorous Earth, which he describes as “an experiment to create a piece for lower pitched alternates for the woodwinds in a quintet: alto flute, English horn, bass clarinet, and contrabassoon.” Although Desena “decided not to use the French horn,” Matthews’ horn is clearly present in this performance. The music is a bit knotty in construction but not so far removed from normal tonality as to bother the average listener. He also develops his music more interestingly than Järvlepp did, taking the first movement into some very deep waters (with alternate themes) as it progresses. There are some interesting syncopations at the halfway mark. My sole complaint is that the second half of the piece seemed repetitive of the first and tended to overstay its welcome.

MacDonald’s Stumpery is described as “a type of garden which features the upturned roots of dead trees. The roots of a tree are very beautiful and intricate, sometimes even more than the rest of the tree; but, this is completely invisible for most living trees.” Weird stuff. The music itself is slow and moody, with quite intricate lines written for the quintet using some interesting sonorities. Peaslee’s Dirge and Second Line attempts to capture the spirit of a New Orleans street funeral, where the band traditionally plays a hymn on the way to the gravesite and an uptempo dance number on the way back, with street dancers holding parasols or umbrellas—the “second line”—cavort in rhythm. Musically speaking, MacDonald does this very well. The problem is that the Arcadian Winds can’t swing to save their lives. They sound like the Sammy Kaye band of the 1940s trying to play a “hot jazz” number. (I will let you guess whether or not the Sammy Kaye band could swing.) Yes, they play strong syncopations, but the classical method of playing syncopations is stiff and too rhythmically strict. “Look! White Man try to dance!” Even their handclapping is stiff and corny. Jeez, guys, you need to listen to some Jelly Roll Morton. Seriously. Start with Didn’t He Ramble.

Our finale is Variations on a Commoner Theme No. 1, a piece with a simple but very nice minor-key melody and, for once, the piece is nicely developed along classical lines, and done so with great skill. Oddly, Kuhn describes this piece as “a comic work…The opening main theme is obviously [italics mine] one of low stature or even laughable in music hierarchy – thus the title. The theme has high aspirations and feels that it should be noble.” But a good composer can make any old theme noble via interesting development, Ken. Look at Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn, one of his greatest compositions. No, Kuhn’s piece isn’t quite on the genius level of the Brahms, but it’s a very good piece nonetheless. I did find some humor in the pointillistic variation, but by and large I just enjoyed it without worrying whether or not the theme was “of low stature” or not. Like some of the other pieces, however, it goes on a bit too long.

So there you go. An interesting album with some very good pieces and some interesting-but-fun works.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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