SPARKE: Reflections on an Old Japanese Folk Song. FAUCHET: Symphony in Bb. DAVID: Ghosts of the Old Year. STEPHENSON: Symphony No. 2, “Voices”* / *Hilary Grace Taylor, mezzo; North Texas Wind Symphony Orch.; Eugene Migliaro Corporon, cond / GIA Wind Works CD-1073
My regular readers know that the North Texas Wind Symphony is one of the finest and most adventurous such organizations in the U.S., also that I like them and their work very much. On this CD they present one old work, Paul Fauchet’s Symphony in Bb from 1926, alongside three very modern works written between 2015 and 2018.
Reflections on an Old Japanese Folk Song was written by Philip Sparke in 2015 for the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra. It is based on the shamisen song Suiryo-Bushi, the shamisen being a three-stringed plucked instrument, thus the tune is fairly limited in scope, but Sparke’s rich scoring and imaginative reworking of the song give it much more dimension. It is a series of variations and the whole work has a very strong tonal bias which is informed by the more modal Japanese harmony of the original tune, thus it is somehow transformed into an American-sounding work with some cute passages of syncopation and a fresh approach to the scoring that almost makes the wind band sound like a full symphony orchestra. My sole complaint of it was that, as it went on, it sounded a bit too predictable as to where the music was going.
Paul Fauchet (1881-1937) was an academic composer who had studied the organ with Louis Vierne, Paul Vidal and others, later teaching composition at the Paris Conservatory. This, his only symphony, is considered a seminal work for wind bands, having been premiered by the French Republican Guard Band in 1926. It’s a nice, cheery piece, very tuneful in almost a pop-song-like manner.
Happily, James M. David’s Ghosts of the Old Year is far more original and imaginative than either of the preceding two works. Written in response to his perceived view of the southern U.S.’s continued racism 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement (though I’m not sure where he got that perception from), the title was taken from James Weldon Johnson’s poem of the same name. Except for a passage that quotes the old hymn tune Beach Spring, the music is colorful and inventive, using the kind of widely-spaced intervals that characterized Aaron Copland’s pieces but in a new and fresh manner. The second section, “Ferocious, intense,” is particularly interesting for his use of strong syncopated rhythms, with the music passing through its savage phase before moving into an equally powerful but more lyrical section with an ominous minor-key theme. The piece, however, ends in the major.
The concluding work is James Stephenson’s Symphony No. 2, written in 2018, and this may well be the most original and interesting work on the entire CD. Largely a self-taught composer, Stephenson nonetheless understands music very well, having spent several years as a trumpeter in the Naples (Florida) Symphony. The subtitle of this symphony, “Voices,” is quite apt since he uses a wordless mezzo-soprano in the first movement, but he is clearly not a “gimmick” composer. This is a well-organized piece with real development and forward progress, and although his themes and motifs are modern they are not pointlessly abrasive. There is a remarkable legato flow to this music, and its component sections are well organized in addition to using some very imaginative textures in the scoring. Although there is a pause between the first and second movements, it somehow sounds like another section of the first movement, albeit at a quicker pace and focused more on the trumpets and trombones. There is an odd touch of a Latin beat in this movement, and the use of “swooping” trombones is quite effective. Stephenson also plays with the beat itself, using it as a springboard for further themes and motifs that bounce off one another. In the middle of this movement, the wordless voice again appears, this time even further recessed into the background, and there are some nice alto sax licks that have a jazz flavor about them. He then later disrupts and dissects the rhythm, playing two different meters against one another.
The last movement begins softly and slowly, with low brass playing a plaintive melody against which glockenspiel and high winds comment quietly. He then cleverly mixes the mezzo voice in with low trumpets and trombones to create an unusual timbre, and the orchestra falls away to allow the mezzo full exposure at around the 3:25 mark. The music then builds, slowly but surely, to a grand climax at the five-minute mark while continuing to develop the theme before coming to a climax.
An interesting disc, then, though I could have lived without the dull, bombastic Fauchet symphony.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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