The Houston Connection

by Walter Simmons

As regular readers may be aware, I have a fondness for American wind band music—especially from the generation of composers who contributed to that repertoire during the 1950s and the 20 or 30 years that followed. During the decades of my tenure at Fanfare, I have reviewed many recordings of this repertoire, and much of it is well-represented on compact disc. But there were three works in particular that I felt were especially outstanding, yet were never available commercially, or in performances that represented them in a favorable light. So I began advocating on their behalf, urging recordings of them in every review of band music that I wrote over a period of several years. The three works were Variations and Fugue, by Vittorio Giannini, Symphony No. 2, “Symphony of the Winds,” by Nicolas Flagello, and a more recent work, Trinity—subsequently identified as Symphony No. 8—by Arnold Rosner.

In June of 2003 I received an e-mail from a Merlin Patterson—a name new to me. He identified himself as a Fanfare reader, and referred to my exhortations regarding Giannini’s Variations and Fugue. He asked whether I would be interested in producing a recording of the complete band music of Giannini. (Giannini composed five works for band between the years 1958-65. One of them—his Symphony No. 3—has become a classic of the repertoire, and is performed more frequently than the rest of the composer’s entire output combined; it has been recorded brilliantly a number of times. But the four other pieces had never been available commercially, although I was familiar with them all from live performances. It so happened that these five works would fit nicely on a single CD.) I immediately responded with interest, but wondered what band Patterson had in mind, and how this might all be arranged. At that point he revealed that he had been involved with the Moores School of Music Wind Ensemble at the University of Houston for a number of years in an ongoing relationship as their “unofficial arranger.” In this capacity he had undertaken a series of transcriptions for band of major orchestral works—major works such as Le Sacre du PrintempsThe Planets, and Janacek’s Sinfonietta. In order to persuade me of the quality of the wind ensemble (and in the process demonstrating that he was no dilettante), he sent me recordings of these and others of his transcriptions, as performed by the Houston ensemble. He said that if I were interested in pursuing a recording of the Giannini project with them, he thought he could make it happen. Listening to the recordings he sent, I was greatly impressed with the band’s performance standards, as well with the quality of Patterson’s transcriptions. To say that I was excited would be an understatement, and I told him I was on board.

Over the course of the next few months Patterson (or “Pat,” as he is known informally) followed through with his plan. He successfully persuaded the principals of the University’s Moores School of Music, including the wind ensemble’s conductor Tom Bennett, of the merits of this project; as a specialist in the music of Giannini, I would serve as producer. Having already produced one recording for Naxos, I indicated that the company might be interested in this one as well. And, indeed, several months later Naxos did agree to release the recording. In the meantime, Bennett began rehearsing the wind ensemble—primarily undergraduates—in the music that would be on the program, while Pat and I maintained contact and worked out details via phone and e-mail.

Then, early in March, 2004, I was flown down from New York to Houston and for the first time met Pat Patterson and the others involved in the recording: It turned out that Bennett had assembled a terrific and cooperative team with Joe Dixon as session producer and David Burks as engineer. All were musicians and invested in the musical outcome. We spent one solid weekend recording all the music for the disc. As most of my work as producer has involved music that has never been previously recorded—or sometimes even performed—I have often said that participating as “midwife” in the process of bringing such works to life has given me the greatest thrills I have ever experienced. This weekend in Houston was no exception. Working smoothly and cooperatively with a team of people I had never met before, on music for which we all shared a love, was gratifying to the point of sheer euphoria—and certainly shattered the stereotypes of Texans previously held by this northeasterner—while the musical results were all I had hoped for. The band was amazingly focused and dedicated, and it quickly became clear that they had been disciplined and inspired to strive toward the highest musical standards. I was surprised to see that they spent a good hour on various intonation and balance exercises before playing a note. But what I will never forget is how Bennett had the group sing their parts in certain passages of the music—again without playing a note—and were coached on their phrasing and expression based on their singing. When they were asked to sing their parts at the exposition of the second theme of the first movement of the Symphony No. 3, I could not keep my eyes from tearing up. By the end of the weekend I was so impressed with the overall ambience of the Moores School of Music that I was ready to leave New York and move there. But more realistically, my long-held dream of a recording of Giannini’s Variations and Fugue—much more demanding and complex than the popular Symphony—would soon become a reality.

During the weekend’s down-time I had the opportunity to become better acquainted with Pat Patterson. I realized that he was not just a “band guy,” but—despite the Texas accent—a serious musician with a rich fund of musical knowledge comparable to that of my most sophisticated colleagues. We had some stimulating conversations and, as the weekend was proceeding so smoothly, we began to talk about the possibility of another recording project. Needless to say, I mentioned the two other works on my “must record” list, those of Flagello and Rosner. Pat was already somewhat familiar with both composers. He knew Flagello’s Symphony of the Winds through the abysmal recording that was then on the market, and several works by Rosner, but not Trinity. The prospect of recording these pieces seemed to appeal to him. I also mentioned Flagello’s last work, the Concerto Sinfonico for Saxophone Quartet and Orchestra, which had been performed several times by the New York-based New Hudson Saxophone Quartet with a number of different orchestras. In fact, we had a plan to record the work later that year with the Rutgers University Orchestra. Although very effective in its original guise, I mentioned to Pat that the piece would probably generate more activity in a transcription for band. That idea also seemed to pique his interest, and he asked me to send him a score and tape.

As soon as I returned home, I sent Pat the material he had requested; impressed with the Concerto Sinfonico, he began work on the transcription almost immediately. I also sent him a tape of a horrid reading of Rosner’s Trinity. He was bowled over by the work, and saw its potential despite the quality of the performance. We began to discuss the possibility of a recording that would include all these pieces, and he introduced the idea to the personnel at the University. Meanwhile, Pat completed his transcription of the Concerto Sinfonico early in 2005, and presented it to conductor Tom Bennett, who agreed to program it on a concert scheduled for that spring. The New Hudson Saxophone Quartet was enlisted for this performance, and the results indicated how successful Pat’s transcription proved to be.

In 1964 Flagello had written a brooding, somber five-minute piece called Introduction and Scherzo in response to a commission for a contest piece for solo accordion. Although I later learned that the piece was well known among the community of serious accordionists, this was admittedly a small community with little intersection with the larger world of concert music. In 1984, while Flagello was composing the Concerto Sinfonico, it occurred to me that the saxophone quartet—an increasingly respectable musical medium—would be an ideal vehicle for the transcription of an accordion work. I suggested this to Flagello, and he said it sounded like a good idea, but by the time he completed the Concerto Sinfonico, his health had deteriorated to the point where he could no longer work. So I decided to undertake the transcription myself, entitling it Valse Noire.

Meanwhile, Pat had spoken a great deal about the high quality of the saxophonists at the school, and informed me that the University of Houston Saxophone Quartet was a top-notch ensemble that had won a number of competitions. He felt that they would be great as the solo group in the Concerto Sinfonico, if we were going to include that on this next recordingThe thought immediately occurred to me that in that case, we could include Valse Noire on the same disc.

Flagello’s Symphony of the Winds was not scored for the standard band instrumentation, but rather for a chamber ensemble consisting of only the winds and percussion of the symphony orchestra. But he did have one piece scored for a conventional symphonic band, called Odyssey. So we decided to include that on the recording as well, and now we had the program for a full CD. Pat approached Tom Bennett with this idea, and he responded with enthusiasm, and a plan was developed to produce this recording some time during the 2006-07 school year.

In May, 2006, Naxos released the Giannini recording, which was received most favorably (see Fanfare 30:1 and 30:2). But then came a series of delays: Tom Bennett left the University and was replaced by David Bertman, a very personable fellow I had met during the Giannini weekend. Once he had been comfortably installed as the new conductor of the Wind Ensemble, Pat presented our programming idea to him. Not familiar with any of the music we had in mind (no surprise), he asked to hear some samples, which I provided. Once he heard portions of some of the music he was eager to participate in our project. But the band had a number of other obligations, and our project had to be postponed—first to 2007-08, then to 2008-09. For a while it seemed as though the recording would never happen. (It was during this time that I realized that Pat had the musical background and intellectual sophistication to write music criticism himself, and I suggested to publisher Joel Flegler that he consider Merlin Patterson for Fanfare’s reviewing staff. Joel was impressed enough to hire Pat, who has since been a valuable contributor to the magazine.)

Finally, a commitment was made to record the music for our project in May, 2010. By the time I arrived for the sessions, David Bertman had been rehearsing the music with the Wind Ensemble for several weeks. By now he was really excited about the repertoire, thrilled about the project as a whole, and had successfully engendered the necessary enthusiasm from the band members. We then faced another long, intense weekend of recording; Arnold Rosner came down from Brooklyn to attend and supervise the recording of Trinity. Hearing the band play the opening contrapuntal passage with impeccable intonation and rich, organ-like sonorities, I was enormously gratified that my judgment of this work, despite the severely flawed reading I had heard, proved to be justified. As listeners will realize when they audition the recording, Rosner’s piece contains some very difficult passages, which required considerable detail work. As a result, despite our most intensive efforts, we were not able to complete the program during the weekend allotted to it. Specifically, recording the Concerto Sinfonico would have to be postponed. This meant waiting another year, as both David Bertman and the band had other obligations and responsibilities. Not until May, 2011, could the remaining work be recorded, and this was scheduled at a time I was not able to attend, although I had the opportunity to review and comment on the takes from New York.

Then came the process of editing the takes. Pat did most of the take-selection, while I reviewed his choices and offered suggestions where I felt necessary. But we needed an engineer to actually pull the takes together, and the fellow usually enlisted to do this work for the University ensembles was booked for months. We couldn’t stand the idea of any more delays. So I decided to call upon Carson Cooman, Fanfare’s Wunderkind, who—in addition to being a composer of 1000 works, a professional organist, a music critic, and a consultant to other composers—functions as a recording engineer, together with his friend and colleague Jeffrey Grossman. They agreed to edit the takes into a final master, and accomplished the task within a few days.

During the years of cancelled and postponed recording dates I realized that it would be unwise to solicit Naxos’s interest in the project until we had a finished master. Now we had such a master, approved by Bertman, Patterson, and me. Only then did I contact Naxos, who agreed to release it in their “Wind Band Classics” series (of which the Giannini CD had been one of the first releases). With the appearance of this new release, I finally have those three “must record” works for band on the market; David Bertman has a recording that displays his fine musical leadership on an internationally-distributed label; Merlin Patterson is represented by an excellent example of his extraordinary ability to transcribe orchestral music for band; the Moores School of Music has a showcase for two of their top ensembles; Naxos continues to provide wide distribution for unknown but deserving works; Arnold Rosner is enjoying the first of his band works to appear on a commercial recording; and the general public has the opportunity to experience fine performances of some really wonderful music they are not likely to have ever heard before.