Zae Munn: Chamber Music with Alto Saxophone. Timothy McAllister, alto and soprano saxophone. Navona. $16.99.
Elements Rising: Modern Works for Chamber Ensemble. Navona. $16.99.
Fantastique: Premières for Trumpet and Wind Ensemble. Eric Berlin, trumpet; UMass Wind Ensemble conducted by James Patrick Miller. MSR Classics. $12.95.
The concept of chamber music, of a “conversation in notes” between two players or among a small number, has changed little over the centuries, however different music itself has become. Even composers who work in a thoroughly modern idiom, such as Zae Munn (born 1953), honor the history of chamber works despite using contemporary titles for their pieces and focusing on comparatively recent instruments, such as the saxophone (which dates only to 1840). A new Navona CD of Munn’s chamber music ranges from the self-referential to the distinctly programmatic. In the former category is Music: A Love Story, for alto saxophone (Timothy McAllister, who performs on every track of this disc), piano (Lucia Unrau), and violin (Daniel Vega-Albela). This is music about music, far more serious and self-involved than, say, Mozart’s Ein musikalischer Spaß; Munn’s work is designed to draw audiences into the experience of musical creativity. That objective does have programmatic connotations, to be sure, and other works here have them to an even greater extent. They Were Mysterious Guests, Hard to Capture, for alto saxophone and piano (Unrau), is a three-movement work recalling various forms of intense emotion. Cascade, for alto saxophone, trombone (David Jackson), and clarinet (Sandra Jackson), is supposed to bring forth associations not only with water but also with electronic connections. Disclosure, for alto saxophone, bassoon(George Sakakeeny), and violin (Vega-Albela), offers a kind of emotional physics lesson, suggesting that observation changes the thing observed in discourse as in quantum studies. Hanging onto the Vine, for soprano saxophone (McAllister), baritone saxophone (Chet Baughman), alto saxophone (Jeffrey Siegfried), and tenor saxophone (Thomas Snydacker), is intended to call forth images of vines from the distinctly popular (Tarzan) to the equally distinctly religious (from the Gospel of John). A human voice becomes one chamber instrument in The Old Songs, Scena for Soprano and Three Instruments, for alto saxophone, clarinet (Sandra Jackson), bass (David Murray), and soprano (Tracy Satterfield) – the work uses a poem by Paul Munn (the composer’s brother) to create 12 brief scenes about memory and memory loss. The largest instrumental ensemble on the CD performs in Broken Tulip: alto saxophone, percussion (Kimberly Burja), flute and piccolo (Jill Heyboer), trombone (David Jackson), clarinet (Sandra Jackson), bassoon (Sakakeeny), and contraforte (Henry Skolnick, whose instrument is a version of the contrabassoon). The concept here is similar to that of Disclosure, the idea being that perception of something can change even though the thing perceived remains the same. Like many contemporary composers, Munn creates music with a strong intellectual component, fully accessible only to those in the know about what she is doing and what the works are intended to convey. Heard without explanatory gloss, all these chamber pieces are well-crafted, and the varying instrumentations are often intriguing; but the pieces attain genuine meaning not in absolute musical terms but only to the extent that audiences study the composer’s intentions and look and listen actively to hear ways in which those intentions are brought to fruition.
The musical approaches are more varied on a new Navona disc called Elements Rising, simply because this is an anthology recording, presenting very varied works by composers who use music for quite different purposes. As always when it comes to CDs of this type, few listeners will likely find the entire disc congenial, and it can be difficult to determine at whom the release is targeted. Yves Ramette, for example, offers the most traditionally “classical” music here, a well-wrought Introduction et Allegro for flute (Jessica Lizak), oboe (Vladimir Lande), B-flat clarinet (Rane Moore), bassoon (Bryan Young), and piano (Karolina Rojahn) – but it is doubtful that this eight minutes of material will be enough to induce anyone to buy (or enjoy) the whole disc. The other works are, to a greater or lesser degree, more overtly “modern-sounding,” although one – Allen Brings’ Duo for Violin and Cello (Deborah Wong and Adam Grabois, respectively) – retains a classical title and generally classical form as well. The other four pieces use the chamber-music format in primarily illustrative ways – ones that, as is the case with Munn’s music, it helps to know about before hearing the works in order to follow them more easily and understand them more fully. These pieces are Steven Block’s Fire Tiger for violin (Vit Mužík) and piano (Lucie Kaucká); Rain Worthington’s Night Stream for two violins (Antonin Hradil and Jakab Látal) and Rhythm Modes for string quartet (Mužík and Látal, violins; Dominika Mužíková, viola; Marian Pavlik, cello); and Paula Diehl’s four-movement Gambit (performed by the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra Chamber Players conducted by Petr Vronský). Each of these works has attractive moments, and each is clearly the product of a composer who knows what he or she intends to say, but the message is not particularly well clarified by the music itself: except for the Ramette and Brings pieces, the works here communicate extra-musically to a greater degree than they communicate as music. There are conversations going on between or among instruments here, to be sure, but the back-and-forth with the audience tends to be muted.
Both the attractions and the limitations are similar on a new MSR Classics release featuring world première recordings of five works for trumpet and wind ensemble by four contemporary composers. The longest and most interesting piece here is Concerto for Two Trumpets and Band (2003/2007) by Stephen Paulus (1949-2014), which received a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. It is in fact a work of considerable interest, its three movements nicely contrasted with each other and the role given to the two trumpets (played by Richard Kelley and Eric Berlin) being sufficiently intricate and involving to reach out to listeners and hold them throughout. The opening “Fantasy” and concluding “Dance” are, as a whole, more successful than the central “Elegy,” which goes on at somewhat greater length than is justified by the musical material. But the overall sound of the piece is attractive from start to finish, and the UMass Wind Ensemble under James Patrick Miller plays well and is both solid and subtle in its support of the soloists. Paulus’ work has some interesting parallels in the Trumpet Concerto (2001/2004) by Evan Hause (born 1958). Like Paulus, Hause is comfortable writing for brass, and his work lies well on the solo instrument (Berlin here plays both trumpet and flugelhorn). The sound of this work is somewhat more overtly “modern,” but the piece’s three-movement structure is very similar to that used by Paulus, even to the point of making the central movement (“Dirge”) longer than the opening “Circus” or concluding “Chase.” The brief and quick finale manages to recall both the trumpet’s “march” propensities and a kind of “hunt” orientation usually more closely associated with the French horn. The remaining works on this disc are shorter and somewhat less interesting. Duo Fantastique (2007) by James Stephenson (born 1969) features Charles Schluter and Berlin playing a well-made work that has little of the fantastic (or of fantasy) about it. Continuum for Trumpet, Trombone and Wind Ensemble (2012) by Jeffrey Holmes (born 1955) offers some initially intriguing sonorities in the contrast between Berlin’s instrument and the trombone of Greg Spiridopoulos, but aside from its sonic elements, the piece does not have very much to say. Another Holmes work opens the CD, appropriately, with a fanfare: Herald Emeritus Fanfare (2006), recorded live in 2010 and featuring Berlin conducting the UMass Trumpet Ensemble. This is scarcely a Giovanni Gabrieli trumpet extravaganza, but it certainly showcases the instruments well and shows that the University of Massachusetts has some fine brass players in addition to Berlin himself, who has taught there for more than a decade. Listeners interested in first-rate brass playing and some skillful 21st-century writing for trumpet may not gravitate equally to all the composers or compositions heard here, but will find this release as a whole to be a very rewarding one.
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