May 28, 2020
(+++) IN SEARCH OF OPTIMISM
James M. Stephenson: Concerto for Hope—Concerto No. 3 for Trumpet and Orchestra; Mark Hagerty: None of the Above for Trumpet and Piano; Justin Casinghino: …And So Then I Threw the Stone for Trumpet and Electronics; Michael Mikulka: Concerto for Trumpet and Wind Ensemble. Andrew Stetson, trumpet, flugelhorn and piccolo trumpet; Texas Tech University Symphony Orchestra conducted by Philip Mann; Becca Zeisler, piano; Justin Casinghino, electronics; Texas Tech University Symphonic Band conducted by Eric Allen. MSR Classics. $12.95.
Aviary: Birds in Poetry and Song. Gary Wood, baritone; Philip Swanson, piano. MSR Classics. $12.95.
In dark and troubled times, hopefulness can be difficult to come by – but sometimes, if not always, music can be a bridge to a better future. That is certainly the intention of Concerto for Hope by James Stephenson (born 1969). The work is designed to reflect the positive attitude of trumpeter Ryan Anthony, who responded to being diagnosed with a blood cancer, multiple myeloma, by establishing a foundation and creating fundraisers called “Cancer Blows.” Knowing this background helps set the scene for Stephenson’s concerto; knowing that some of the money spent on the MSR Classics disc containing the concerto is donated to Anthony’s foundation may encourage listeners to buy the CD. For most people, though, the main interest here is likely to be hearing Andrew Stetson’s skilled performance in this world première recording, along with his handling of three other world premières. The Stephenson concerto is laid out in the traditional three movements, the third bearing the specific title Speranza, and lies well on the solo instrument. Both the Moderato first movement and the Adagio second are meditative, with the second movement’s extended solo-trumpet focus inviting expressively elegant playing. The finale is more dissonant than the other movements, a slightly disconcerting fact in light of its “hope” title, but it is upbeat enough to make an effective conclusion to the concerto. None of the Above by Mark Hagerty (born 1953) was written for the performers heard here, Stetson and pianist Becca Zeisler. It is a very different work from Stephenson’s and is a kind of “cause” piece in a different sense. The work’s overall title is also the title of the first of its four movements, most of which is a cacophonous eruption from the two instruments. The second movement, B, C & D, is a meandering piece based on the three tones of its title. The third movement is called Other (explain) and is a sort-of dance that mixes old and new compositional techniques. The finale is called, perhaps inevitably, All of the Above, and is the “cause” heart of the work, aimed at hoped-for acceptance of all people and all attitudes and all sorts of music. It is less interesting than the other movements, though, and sounds a bit like warmed-over Ives. The next work on the disc is called (with ellipsis) …And So Then I Threw the Stone. It is by Justin Casinghino (born 1978), and sounds a bit like warmed-over acoustic-plus-electronic music of all sorts. Lasting 12 minutes, longer than any movement of any of the other works on the CD, it overstays its welcome and does not showcase Stetson’s warmth and musical sensitivity particularly well. The final work offered here, Concerto for Trumpet and Wind Ensemble by Michael Mikulka (born 1985), is considerably more interesting. Its three movements together are only slightly longer than Casinghino’s single one, but Mikulka shows considerable skill in writing both for the solo instrument and for the ensemble. Rather old-fashioned lyricism keeps creeping into the concerto, even in its more-pointed sections (the first movement is marked Aggressive). Mikulka overdoes a few effects, especially in the third movement – a finale in which the parts for both trumpet and ensemble are less distinctive than in the first two movements. But the blending of solo and band is effective even here, and this work, along with Stephenson’s concerto, will be especially attractive for audiences interested not only in fine playing but also in well-wrought contemporary trumpet music.
The forms of uplift are also mixed on another MSR Classics release packed with world premières, this one celebrating birds of various types in music of various kinds. The performances, more than the material, are what bring some sense of order here: composer/pianist Philip Swanson conceptualized the recital and composed the longest work on the disc, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (words by Wallace Stevens). Swanson also wrote Great Grey Owl (words by Annie Finch) and The Wild Swans at Coole (words by William Butler Yeats). Swanson dedicates these works and the other material heard here to baritone Gary Wood, so the recital has something of a chums-making-music feeling to it even though the five shorter pieces on the disc were not written by Swanson himself. They are all in jazz idiom: Peace by Horace Silver, Skylark by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer, Baltimore Oriole by Carmichael and Paul Francis Webster, A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square by Manning Sherwin and Eric Maschwitz, and Ladybird by Tadd Dameron and Stanley Cornfield. The question of audience for this CD is a pervasive one: beyond Wood and Swanson themselves, and their inner circle, and perhaps some ornithologists and birdwatchers, the appeal of this mixture of disparate material is rather hard to pin down. The self-conscious Sprechstimme and dissonances of Swanson’s settings proclaim them contemporary but produce a sameness of sound that undermines the distinctiveness of Stevens’ multiple viewpoints and the distinctions between his use of the English language and the very different ways in which Finch and Yeats employ it. Wood enunciates all the poetry well, but with some strain periodically showing in his voice. Swanson’s solo-piano handling of Peace (loosely connected to the “bird” theme by the notion of doves as harbingers of peacefulness) acts as a kind of punctuation point, a musical semicolon, prior to the four jazzlike works that bring a pop-music feeling to the last part of the CD. Humans, especially in times of fear and trauma, tend to romanticize birds, which seem to soar above earthbound concerns. This is scientifically quite inaccurate but certainly understandable; perhaps some listeners will find (or create) personalized messages in Aviary and be soothed and comforted by them. However, the disc does not really reach out very far beyond the performers themselves and the cognoscenti of Swanson’s and Wood’s particular creativity.