July 07, 2016


Thomas Coates: Wilking Quickstep; Plantation Echoes; March Funebra, Op. 18; “Bontey en avant” Quickstep; Columbian National Potpourri; Tycoon March; Funeral March, Op. 19; Salute to Erin—Medley Overture; Frederick J. Keller: Safe in the Arms of Jesus—Fantasia; Franz von Suppé: My Native Land (arranged by J.B. Claus). Newberry’s Victorian Cornet Band conducted by Douglas Hedwig. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Quickstep: Brass Band Music of the American Civil War. Coates Brass Band conducted by Douglas Hedwig. MSR Classics. $12.95.

Sparks: Miniature Works for Orchestra. Siberian State Symphony Orchestra, Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra, Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra and The Wembley Players conducted by Vladimir Lande, Petr Vronský, Kirk Trevor and Bruce Babcock. Navona. $9.99.

Philip Thompson: Chamber Music. IonSound Project. Ravello. $14.99.

     The willing suspension of expectation is required for listeners interested in hearing two superlative MSR Classics recordings of band music conducted by Douglas Hedwig. This is related to Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief,” which allows enjoyment of literature that is, on its face, unbelievable – but it is not quite the same thing. There is nothing unbelievable about these two band recordings, nor is there anything “unhearable” about them. But they profoundly violate modern expectations of how a band recording “should” sound. Those expectations are deeply, indeed foundationally, related to the band and music of John Philip Sousa: when he began touring with his band in 1892, he forever changed Americans’ (and later the world’s) notion of what a band “ought to” sound like. Sousa substantially reconstituted the band, balancing brass instruments with woodwinds and turning the ensemble into one that could be well-nigh symphonic in scope. And he then wrote music that not only exploited his band’s makeup but also stretched the players’ abilities and ears – and the audience’s ears as well. The importance and influence of Sousa on band music can scarcely be overestimated. But for him to have changed the makeup and sound of bands, there had to be something to change from, and that is what Hedwig and his players present on these CDs. For lovers of brass and those who enjoy exploring musical byways, these recordings are simply marvelous. The bands that Hedwig conducts play original period instruments – and, equally noteworthy, they use period mouthpieces to play them. It is hard to understand how important this is without listening to the music. The composers heard here, of whom Thomas Coates was the most prominent, were writing for brass at a time when brass instruments themselves were changing dramatically. A difference of a year or two, a difference of manufacturer even in the same year, could lead to instruments with vastly different actions and audibly different sound production. Even listeners who understand the fascination in recent decades with historically accurate performance have likely not encountered that sort of scholarship applied to band instruments. But its elements are much the same as are those for strings. It is not just that the instruments themselves should be authentic: having the right mouthpieces is as important for brass players as using gut strings and appropriate bows is for string players. The attention to detail in these performances is simply wonderful.

     This would not matter a whit, though, if the music itself were unworthy. But it is not: much of it deserves to be deemed “undiscovered delights.” Coates, who was born in either 1803 or 1813 and lived into the Sousa era, until 1895, was an excellent producer of military music before and during the Civil War and of works of wider scope afterwards. Not much of it has survived – these two CDs include almost all of it – but there is plenty here to demonstrate that Coates understood the forms of band music well, wrote for them with skill, and created some genuinely unusual and even challenging pieces that sound, in places, far more recent than they are. The CD featuring Newberry’s Victorian Cornet Band includes Coates’ later works, many of which may have been peacetime arrangements of ones from the Civil War era. Coates was especially adept with quicksteps, works not quite as fast as their title indicates but more than suitable for a well-paced march – and sounding not at all like the more-familiar tripartite Sousa marches that were to come later. Coates also had considerable skill in assembling potpourris of tunes that were well-known in his time – the same practice often followed by composers of orchestral music. Not all the tunes he used are still familiar, and some are completely unknown, but others, such as several Stephen Foster songs and Dixie in Plantation Echoes, remain quite familiar and are handled very adeptly. And Coates’ funeral marches are genuine dirges, with nothing symphonic, much less entertaining, about them: their purpose is quite clear, and it is fulfilled with admirable skill. This CD includes two non-Coates works that are intended to show some types of music that Coates wrote but of which no examples survive. These are perfectly reasonable period pieces but add little to the works by Coates himself.

     The other CD, featuring the Coates Brass Band, includes 10 Coates pieces from the Civil War or earlier, interspersed rather disconcertingly with music by other composers of the time: William Tanzer, George H. Goodwin, Sir Henry R. Bishop, A. Kurrick, and B.F. Porter. There are also a few oddities by better-known names: a hymn tune by Thomas Pleyel; Hail, Columbia, a still-used patriotic tune by Philip Phile; the traditional and familiar Red, White and Blue; and, strangest of all, an arrangement of the “Death Song” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. There are no potpourris here, but the CD as a whole is something of a potpourri on its own, with non-Coates pieces inserted willy-nilly among those by Coates himself. Despite the comparative lack of focus of this disc compared with the other, it offers equally fine playing and a genuine sense of hearing this music in the way that soldiers and civilians alike must have heard it 150-plus years ago. The sound of Hedwig’s musicians is truly unlike that of any other bands: these original-instrument, original-mouthpiece performances are throwbacks of the most interesting, valuable and moving kind, profoundly connecting the 21st century with the everyday musical experiences of the middle of the 19th.

     The sonic palette sought by contemporary composers is quite different; indeed, different composers use the available sounds of a modern orchestra in entirely distinct ways. That is the main impression left by a compilation of nine short, unrelated orchestral works on a (+++) Navona CD called Sparks. There is no real unifying theme here beyond brevity: the pieces all range from four to eight minutes in length. Only one is likely to be familiar to listeners: Gershwin’s Summertime from Porgy and Bess, heard not in its original vocal version but in one featuring Richard Stolzman’s sensitive clarinet playing – which shows just how closely this instrument can duplicate the warm sound of the human voice. The remaining pieces seek different aural worlds. Gangsta by Jay Anthony Gach is intense and brass-focused. Still Motion by Rain Worthington starts with a vibraphone melody and explores it rhythmically. Fragments by Marga Richter also uses a single melody, creating five very short movements that use the orchestra in differing ways. A Tango Fantasy by Phillip Rhodes, the longest piece on the CD, is not a dance work, despite its title – it constantly seems about to become a tango but never does so, instead teasingly approximating the rhythms and melodies of the dance form. Prelude for Charles by Steven Winteregg tries to use the name Charles as the basis of various themes, along the lines of earlier composers’ use of Bach’s name or Shostakovich’s inclusion of his own initials in many works. In Memoriam by Douglas Anderson is suitably solemn, having been written as a response to the terrorist murders in New York City on September 11, 2001. Event Horizon by Bruce Babcock is a study in orchestral texture within a highly dissonant sound world. And Crown of the Continent by Stephen Lias is intended as an evocation of Glacier National Park in Montana, where Lias was artist in residence. Generalizing about these works is impossible and is not the point of the CD, which simply offers them as short-form explorations of the different sounds that contemporary composers can extract from orchestral instruments. In the absence of any unifying musical or conceptual theme, the CD has nowhere specific to go; it simply meanders from one aural approach to the next, so listeners unimpressed by a particular work need not wait long to hear a different composer’s different approach.

     Only one composer’s sound world is present on a new Ravello CD of the music of Philip Thompson, but it would be more accurate to refer to sound worlds, plural, since Thompson makes a real effort in this chamber music to produce distinct aural experiences according to what he wants each work to communicate. Members of the IonSound Project ensemble, joined by violist Marylène Gingras-Roy and percussionist Ryan Socrates, showcase five different types of chamber-music sound here. Trouble (2007) uses a medieval chant as its foundation, while Kecow hit tamen (2011) looks to the past in a different way for its basis, focusing on the language of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina in a piece that mingles the spoken word with a chamber group. Separate Self (2012) is built around dance elements and gains a pronounced jazz flavor through its use of a drum set. The four groups of Nocturnes (2014), three pieces per set, have visual inspirations but come across mostly as grey in color, their use of only three instruments (violin, viola and cello) limiting their expressiveness: running from less than one minute to about two, the pieces seem longer simply because they are so blandly monochromatic. The visual inspiration is of a different type in Score to the film “Virgil Cantini: The Artist in Public” (2009), which also uses just three instruments (flute, cello and piano) but deploys them more successfully to sustain a delicate nine-minute work. None of the music on this (+++) CD is exceptional either in construction or in communicative ability, but listeners interested in Thompson’s attempts to create differing sonic experiences with a limited instrumental complement will find the contrast among the pieces interesting to encounter.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful and insightful review!