LINDROTH: Spin Cycle. PERSICHETTI: Divertimento. BASSETT: Sounds, Shapes, and Symbols. BENNETT: Suite of Old American Dances.

SOUNDS, SHAPES, AND SYMBOLS · Michael Haithcock, cond; University of Michigan Symphony Band · EQUILIBRIUM EQ-59 (58:41)

LINDROTH: Spin Cycle. PERSICHETTI: Divertimento. BASSETT: Sounds, Shapes, and Symbols. R. R. BENNETT: Suite of Old American Dances. SCARLATTI-SHOSTAKOVICH: Two Pieces. TCHAIKOVSKY-CRAMER: Snow Maiden (Dance of the Jesters)

During the 1960s, when I was a young, impressionable, and enthusiastic participant in the high school band experience, the inherited wisdom was that the ultimate symphonic band ideal (as opposed to the small, chamberesque alternative embodied by the Eastman Wind Ensemble) was represented by the University of Michigan Band, as led by its tyrannical maestro William D. Revelli. Revelli, so we were told, elicited performances of impeccable—if somewhat cold—precision through the techniques of intimidation and humiliation he had learned by observing his idol Arturo Toscanini. I actually managed to attend two performances of this legendary ensemble during that decade, when tours took them to the New York area. Those experiences, which only confirmed the received impression, remain vividly in my memory to this day. One of Revelli’s greatest contributions, from my standpoint, was his development of the band into fluent, highly polished medium through which to present original repertoire created by America’s greatest composers of the time: Persichetti, Giannini, Creston et al.

Revelli retired during the early 1970s, and was succeeded by H. Robert Reynolds, who strove to update the University of Michigan Band’s “image,” by bringing their programming more into line with then-current trends in musical academia-not, in my opinion, a salutary effort, and one that succeeded in snuffing out my own interest in the fruits of their labor. Reynolds retired in 2001, and now the University of Michigan Symphony Band (its official appellation) has entered the reign of Michael Haithcock, who had led the highly esteemed Baylor University Wind Ensemble for 23 years before assuming his new position. This recent release on the Equilibrium label serves as his introduction to the broader public, while giving us a “state-of-the-union” sample of the band’s playing today. As such, it offers a varied program, presumably with “something for everyone” who might be an interested party.

“Serious listeners” tend not to embrace the “something for everyone” approach, but this program isn’t too bad: at least there are no marches, Sousa or otherwise. The show opens with Spin Cycle, a 6-minute piece written in 2001 by Scott Lindroth, a 46-year-old composer on the faculty of Duke University. It is a terrific showcase as an opener, demonstrating the group’s stunning prowess in today’s music. Brilliantly splashy ideas tumble forth, one after another, none lasting more than a few seconds. The impression it makes is irresistibly seductive, sort of like “Michael Torke meets Karel Husa,” but it’s over so quickly that it’s almost disorienting; the band’s playing is absolutely stunning.

Shostakovich arranged a couple of little Scarlatti pieces for 14 winds and timpani in 1928. A Russian musicologist termed them “orchestrations of genius,” but I don’t think so. The idea promises far more than it delivers; I could have done without them.
Leslie Bassett, now 81, has been one of the University of Michigan’s star composers. A member of the band himself during the Revelli tenure, he won the Pulitzer Prize in composition in 1966. Bassett’s Sounds, Shapes and Symbols, completed in 1977, was commissioned for the band by Reynolds, who had once been a student of the composer. The pieces of Bassett’s with which I am familiar belong to the short-lived “New Romanticism” movement associated with Jacob Druckman. By the 1970s many were beginning to voice the realization that the serialist empire, as it were, had no clothes. Even some composers began to admit that they couldn’t stand their own music. But returning to tonality would have been unacceptably retro, so-casting an eye toward the composers of Eastern Europe, like Penderecki and Ligeti—they came up with a music of gestures and sonorities, richly and brilliantly orchestrated, and shaped with an eye toward broader dramatic contours. The result was a sort of aural kaleidoscope that required an ongoing montage of consistently imaginative and captivating musical events from the composer. Although few could meet this challenge, some efforts were successful in small doses. Sounds, Shapes and Symbols is a 12-minute work in four short movements that do manage to sustain one’s interest, for the most part. With a performance that is nigh on impeccable its presence on this recording displays it most advantageously.

If Bassett’s piece is representative of the Reynolds era, then Persichetti’s is a memento of the Revelli years. Vincent Persichetti was probably the greatest of all composers for the band, his fourteen works for the medium ranging from those simple enough for youngsters to play and enjoy, to others of enormous difficulty and conceptual complexity, from short pieces comprising tiny movements to a full symphony, as well as an extended, abstract single-movement essay. All utilize the band as the ideal vehicle for the musical statement at hand, rather than as a compromise, as was often the case. Divertimento was Persichetti’s first work for band-composed in 1950, when a serious, autonomous repertoire was just beginning to develop, and when he was just coming into his own as a distinctive compositional voice. The piece presents his musical persona at its most ingratiating and friendly. Each of its six tiny movements, averaging less than two minutes apiece, is something like a musical epigram. Although its collective character is light and breezy, an underlying wistfulness hints at a depth barely implied on the surface. The concise eloquence of each movement is extraordinary and far from casual, despite the playful overall impression. Though meticulously coordinated and phrased, the performance of the Divertimento is a little too expansive and full, especially in the two outer movements. This may represent an attempt to portray Persichetti as a “romantic” composer (which he really was not), or perhaps to create a sense of retrospective warmth, but lean textures and brisk tempos are part of the composer’s essence.

The piece that takes up the most time on the disc is the one with the least musical substance and interest: Robert Russell Bennett’s Suite of Old American Dances. These are simple, straightforward settings of five familiar dance patterns: rag, schottische, cake-walk, et al., in somewhat slick, 1930s-style pops-concert arrangements. Although the performances here are meticulously polished, I do believe there are much better ways that the band’s artistry-and those 18 minutes-might have been used (although I’m sure there are those who would disagree).

The disc concludes with the program’s only arrangement of orchestral music from the past: “Dance of the Jesters,” from Tchaikovsky’s incidental music to Snow Maiden. This is a delightful showpiece, displaying the band’s incredibly well coordinated ensemble playing at an almost manic whirlwind tempo.

As indicated, this recent release suggests that the University of Michigan Symphony Band’s reputation for disciplined artistry remains intact. However, in addition to its precision, which often makes it sound like a single instrument, there is a smoothness of articulation, a rounding of edges, that almost imparts a sense of self-satisfaction. Others may prefer a more sharp-edged incisiveness. Nevertheless, the recording is likely to appeal to most general aficionados of the symphonic band, while those who are picky about repertoire may have their complaints with one aspect of the program or another.