June 10, 2021


Music for American Wind Band by Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, Edward Beyer, Ernesto Cavallini, Giuseppe Verdi, Jean Marie Missud, George Schleiffarth, August Damm, John Philip Sousa, Ciro Pinsuti, Allesandro Liberati, Thomas Coates, and Émile Waldteufel. Newberry’s Victorian Cornet Band conducted by Elisa Koehler. MSR Classics. $14.95.

Priscilla Alden Beach: City Trees; Linda Robbins Coleman: For a Beautiful Land; Alexandra Pierce: Behemoth. Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra conducted by Reuben Blundell. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

Aaron Jay Myers: Skin; Lichens II; Oh, the Irony; Have-Not; Night of Pan; Clever Machines; Own Your Own Shadow; Paroxysm. New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     It was wind bands, not orchestras, that were the primary carriers of musical culture around the United States in the latter part of the 19th century – emphatically so when John Philip Sousa completely revamped and reorganized the whole wind-band concept, but even before then, when the bands were largely a carryover from the Civil War. This makes wind-band music from the late 1800s and early 1900s a fertile field to explore, and one that has by no means been investigated as thoroughly as has concert-hall music of the same period. Hearing band music of this time on band instruments of this time is an even-less-common occurrence, and as a new MSR Classics disc featuring Elisa Koehler conducting Newberry’s Victorian Cornet Band shows, it is one that is very much worth experiencing. This is music for American wind band, but only some of it is American music, and that is a fair reflection of the programs that bands offered to audiences in this time period. Inevitably, there is one piece by Sousa – the rousing Semper Fidelis – but there are also works written for the concert hall or opera stage, arranged, as was customary at the time, for a full complement of winds. Interestingly, the only composer represented twice on the disc is none other than Verdi, whose Nabucco overture and terzetto and finale from Attila are given suitably enthusiastic performances. There is also a familiar piece here by Émile Waldteufel: the L’Estudiantina waltz, whose always-upbeat nature (it does not even have a typical Waldteufel slow introduction) fits the band complement very well. Well-known tunes of the time, often from operas or operettas, also show up in other works. For example, there is a Fantasia on “La Sonnambula” by Ernesto Cavallini (1807-1874) that is well-made, if not especially true to the mood of Bellini’s opera. And there is one of those “why do I know that tune?” works, Yankee Tickle Medley by Edward Beyer (c. 1830-c. 1897), which tickles listeners’ fancy with, among other things, an impressive fanfare that comes from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. The music on this CD may be inconsequential, but it is far from uninteresting. From Thomas Coates (1803-1895), often called the father of American band music, there is the rousing “I Am Up” Quickstep, and there are similarly positive-sounding pieces by composers who are now almost completely unknown: Salute to New York March by Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore (1829-1892), Mañana Chilean Dance by Jean Marie Missud (1852-1941), Jolly Bears (Polka Humoristic) by George Schleiffarth (1849-1921), Through the Air by August Damm (1849-1942), Serenade “Good Night Beloved” by Ciro Pinsuti (1829-1888), and The Battle Cry of Freedom by Allesandro Liberati (1847-1927). Even when the pieces are trifles, as many are, they are very pleasant to hear, and the entire disc is played exceptionally stylishly and with all the enthusiasm that the music deserves – which is quite a lot. The period instruments fit the music ideally, and the CD as a whole is a most-welcome time capsule giving entry to an earlier, perhaps more-optimistic, perhaps more-naïve America in which musical entertainment – before there were recordings, before there was radio – was largely the province of bands that, at their best, were as skilled as Newberry’s Victorian Cornet Band.

     There are still plenty of discoveries to be made in American music, which is to say music created by American composers, not just arranged for performance by American ensembles. Reuben Blundell and the Lansdowne Symphony Orchestra have led the way to a number of such discoveries, including three previously unrecorded orchestral works offered on a New Focus Recordings CD. The disc opens with the brief, atmospheric, mostly tonal and warm City Trees by Priscilla Alden Beach (1902-1970), a work from 1928 whose sounds of the sylvan in the city are as apt today as they were almost a century ago. The work’s speedier section midway through is more evocative of the trees’ surroundings than of the plantings themselves. Next is For a Beautiful Land by Linda Robbins Coleman (born 1954), a rather brash, proclamatory work from 1996. This is broadly expansive music that is very reminiscent of Copland’s “popular” mode – an outgoing, bright, forthright 11-minute tone poem whose emotions range from the celebratory to the playful. Finally there is Behemoth by Alexandra Pierce (born 1934), a 1976 work that is scarcely a leviathan, in fact being titled as “in five short movements.” Those range from the five-minute first to the 90-second fourth, all in the service of creating a tone poem quite different from Coleman’s. Pierce seeks here to expand, musically, the notion of the Book of Job and the struggles embodied in it, doing so with a darkly portentous first movement; a second movement even more percussion-infused than the opening one; a pathos-infused third movement, in which oboe and horn play prominent roles; a fourth movement that is essentially an extended percussion cadenza; and a finale that provides the only amusement in the entire piece, albeit through rather dark humor. Behemoth has attractive moments and some especially well-done percussion writing, but is not particularly convincing in terms of the theme it attempts to illustrate, although Blundell and the Lansdowne ensemble certainly play it with relish – as, indeed, they play all the music on this (+++) disc. It is, however, very unfortunate that the entire CD lasts barely 30 minutes: less-known, relatively modern music is a hard-enough sell without asking prospective listeners to pay full price for a half-hour disc of never-before-recorded material with which, by definition, they will almost certainly be totally unfamiliar.

     Another (+++) offering from New Focus Recordings contains more than twice as much likely-unfamiliar American music, all by a single composer, Aaron Jay Myers. The quantity of material does not, of course, correlate with its quality, but what this disc does do is offer eight Myers works with differing instrumentation, increasing the likelihood that a listener who finds Myers’ approach congenial will discover at least one piece that is worth hearing and rehearing. Skin is for tenor saxophone (Philipp Stäudlin) and marimba (Matt Sharrock), an intriguing instrumental combination whose effect is vitiated by Myers’ determination to go the standard contemporary route of pushing the instruments’ sounds beyond the norm and likely beyond aural comfort – the saxophone, for example, sounding like a foghorn here, an electronic-style screech there. Lichens II is an eight-movement suite for solo violin (Nicole Parks), with each brief movement given a title relating to a type of lichen (Fruticose, Byssoid, Leprose, etc.) and each intended to be reflective in some way of that particular lichen. This is more of an intellectual exercise than an emotive one, and the work again shows Myers’ interest in changing the sound of an instrument to the point of unpleasantness (e.g., the loud scraping in Crustose). But there is some effective violin writing here, notably in spiccato sections and in the use of harmonics, and some of the piece is interestingly evocative of something-or-other, if not necessarily of lichens. The next work on the disc is Oh, the Irony for two sopranos (Rose Hegele and Stephanie Lamprea); this sounds like dozens, maybe hundreds of other works that treat the voice as just another instrument and the words and many non-word syllables being uttered as building blocks of sound for its own sake. Have-Not is a second duet including marimba (Sharrock), this time with bass clarinet (Amy Advocat) – in an aural juxtaposition somewhat more convincing than is found in Skin. Next on the disc is Night of Pan, whose instrumentation is even more interesting: flute (Sarah Brady), toy piano (Sarah Bob), harp (Amanda Romano Foreman), and marimba (Sharrock). This is the cleverest exploration of complementary and contrasting sonic material on the disc, somewhat overextended at nine-and-a-half minutes but filled with intriguing use of the instruments and some especially attractive writing for harp. Clever Machines combines two instruments heard earlier on the disc, bass clarinet (Advocat) and marimba (Sharrock), with electronics handled by Myers himself. The use of electronic sounds is not especially distinctive, and the interweaving of the acoustic instruments does not take the music in any particularly noteworthy (so to speak) direction. Own Your Own Shadow is for violin (Natalie Cristina Calma Gómez) and bass clarinet (Kevin Price). At more than 11 minutes, it is the longest work on the disc, and while it does use numerous comparison-and-contrast elements effectively in the context of a generally energetic presentation, it becomes somewhat over-preoccupied with its own cleverness well before it runs its course. The final work on the disc, Paroxysm, is yet another of Myers’ aural-combination-and-contrast works, here including bass clarinet (Price), electric guitar (Myers himself), piano (Bob), and drum set (Daniel T. Lewis). This is sort-of-rock music, its rhythms and propulsive forward motion more attractive than its thematic (or athematic) material and instrumental interplay. Certainly this hour-plus disc provides listeners with plenty of chances to find music by Myers with which to engage: the works are different enough to appeal to different people in different ways, if they successfully appeal at all.

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