PERSICHETTI: Symphony No. 6. MENNIN: Canzona. DANIELPOUR: Vox Populi. TORKE: Grand Central Station. Works by Hazo, Yurko, Tull, Mailman

by Walter Simmons



RIDE  Jack Stamp, cond; IUP Wind Ens; Gary Bird, cond; IUP Brass Ens • KLAVIER K-11141 (62:02)

PERSICHETTI: Symphony No. 6. MENNIN: Canzona. HAZO: Ride. YURKO: Intrada. DANIELPOUR/STAMP: Vox Populi. TORKE: Grand Central Station. TULL: Liturgical Symphony. MAILMAN: Secular Litanies.

Jack Stamp is one of the most active and prominent figures on the American wind ensemble scene today. A graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and a protégé of Eugene Corporon, he returned to IUP to join the faculty and direct the band program. There he also formed the Keystone Wind Ensemble, with which he has made a number of valuable and rewarding recordings. The difference between this latter group and the IUP Wind Ensemble is not exactly clear to me, although my ears tell me that the Keystone Winds are somewhat tighter and more proficient. I suspect that they include faculty members among their numbers, while the IUP ensemble seems to be limited to students.

The program offered here can be broken down into two categories: pieces from the 1950s, the “Golden Age” of American band music; and music from the past decade or so. To begin with the first group: Vincent Persichetti’s Symphony No. 6 (1956) would probably be my choice as the pre-eminent masterpiece of the “Golden Age.” Many band works of that era sound generic in their relationship to the medium—i.e., they might just as well have been scored for most any medium—or sound like music conceived for symphony orchestra and reluctantly transcribed for the medium at hand. But Persichetti’s conceptions are essentially wedded to the medium, and could not be rendered by any other without fundamental distortion. Furthermore, the 1950s were, in a sense, Persichetti’s decade, the period when his celebrated breadth of stylistic range crystallized into a very personal language, but before his quest to embrace and incorporate virtually every compositional innovation into his palette led him down some rather dry and rarefied paths. Beginning in 1950, Persichetti composed 14 works for band or wind ensemble, of which five derive from that decade, and they are five of his most frequently performed compositions. But beyond considerations confined to the band medium, Persichetti was perhaps America’s greatest neo-classicist, and his Symphony No. 6 is certainly one of America’s greatest neo-classical symphonies, constructed with the utmost concision, organic unity, and economy of means and purpose, all of which give rise to a sense of youthful exhilaration and revelry in the joyful exercise of compositional virtuosity.

Not surprisingly, Persichetti’s Sixth has been recorded a number of times. Two of the most significant efforts were conducted by one of the pioneering advocates of the wind band as a serious artistic medium, Frederick Fennell, founder of the Eastman Symphonic Wind Ensemble. Their recording of the Persichetti symphony, made in 1959 (and currently available on a Mercury CD, 432 754-2), was a stunning rendition that set a standard hard to meet, and one that still sounds impressive today. Fennell recorded the piece again 30 years later, this time with the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra (Kosei KOCD-3101), a hand-picked Japanese group formed expressly for his own purposes. This performance boasts a bit more finesse, but a bit less brilliance and exuberance. It is partly an indication of the ever-rising standard of proficiency in musical performance that the IUP Wind Ensemble can hold its own quite well in this company—except for one unfortunately fatal flaw: Stamp takes the third movement, a gently lilting intermezzo (not really a scherzo) marked Allegretto, at a tempo that presses forward so impatiently as to distort the essential—and seemingly self-evident—character of the movement.

The other real classic on the disc is Peter Mennin’s Canzona, dating from 1951, shortly after the composer’s Fifth Symphony. Like all of Mennin’s music from that period, it is a vigorous exercise in imitative counterpoint that unfolds with brilliant lucidity. Its concentration of pure musical content into less than five minutes results in a statement of considerable substance despite its brevity. The performance here is both solid and transparent, but it is slightly surpassed by Stamp’s own recording with the Keystone Wind Ensemble (Citadel CTD-88128).

The other “oldie” is the Liturgical Symphony (1960), scored for large brass ensemble with percussion, by Fisher Tull (1934-94). A native Texan, Tull spent many years on the faculty of Sam Houston State University, and was active as a trumpet player and jazz arranger as well. His Liturgical Symphony is based on a number of medieval plainchant melodies. But, like similar works by Norman Dello Joio and others, the treatment of the material is mundane and pedestrian, with little connection to its spiritual roots. I suppose one might argue that secular treatment of sacred themes has a long and honorable history, and this is true. But the result, whatever it may be, should have some merit of its own, some intrinsic interest. Of that I found this 13-minute work to be remarkably devoid.

Now, to the more recent efforts: Eastman-trained Martin Mailman (1932-2000) was a prolific composer of music for winds, and for many years headed the composition department at the University of North Texas. I have not been favorably impressed by most of what I have heard of his music, and found his Secular Litanies (1993) to be rather mechanical and awkward-sounding. 

A student of Joseph Schwantner and Jacob Druckman, Michael Torke celebrates his 43rd birthday as I write this. He is one of today’s most frequently performed composers, having developed a highly accessible approach that applies a rich palette of instrumental colors, and an almost tuneful melodic-harmonic emphasis to minimalist textures—what might be called “post-minimalist ear-candy.” I find that many of his pieces run out of creative steam before they are finished, and this is true, I’m afraid, of the six-minute Grand Central Station, written for the Goldman Band in 2001. It starts off pleasantly enough, but becomes tedious very soon. Easy to listen to, it is, I suspect, quite hard to play, as the woodwinds seem quite taxed by the constant chattering.

Richard Danielpour, now in his late forties, was a student of both Persichetti and Mennin. He is another one of today’s most successful composers, having developed an exciting, colorful, and rhythmically active style that makes an impressive impact on initial hearing. Vox Populi was originally an orchestral work, composed in 1998 for the inauguration of a newly restored theater in Evansville, Indiana. The seven-minute piece was successfully arranged for band by Jack Stamp, although again those taxing minimalist textural patterns clearly challenge the group’s endurance. Those patterns sometimes call Steve Reich to mind, but Danielpour’s approach in Vox Populi resembles more that of Michael Torke. However, its superficial similarity to Grand Central Station (discussed above) makes comparison unavoidable, to the decided advantage of Danielpour, who is more successful at maintaining a rate of change that keeps the proceedings interesting.

Remaining are two tiny (three-minute) pieces of stunning impact, and great fun—for the listener and, I imagine, for the performers as well. Born in Pittsburgh in 1966, Samuel R. Hazo has been active at the nexus of the worlds of applied music and music education. Ride is a wild and snazzy romp, written in 2002 expressly for Stamp and the IUP Wind Ensemble, and inspired by an incident involving a wild car-ride. It is extremely engaging, with an undeniably commercial/pop surface, while reflecting real skill in evoking an infectious sense of excitement.

Equally extroverted is the Intrada by Bruce Yurko, a prolific composer and band director in New Jersey. This is another real knockout, aggressive and rhythmically charged; indeed, the word “macho” comes to mind. It might be described as combining the emphatic brutality of Czech moderns like Vaclav Nelhybel and Karel Husa with the rhythmic swing typical of American music. The fact that Yurko was a composition student of Husa may be germane.

This release will certainly be of interest to those listeners who follow recordings of “serious” music for wind ensemble, which seem to be appearing with increased frequency, I am pleased to report. Overall, except for the most taxing passages, as noted, the performances are tightly disciplined and quite effective. Individual purchasing decisions will most likely be based on one’s interest in the particular program at hand. In closing, I would like to direct the attention of band directors to the music for wind ensemble by Arnold Rosner. He has now written seven excellent such works, of which none has been recorded. One of them, Trinity, will, I believe, be regarded as a masterpiece when it is finally discovered. Another is the Symphony of the Winds by Nicolas Flagello. This has been recorded, and is available on Citadel CTD-88115, but in a performance by an Italian band that can’t begin to match the proficiency of American groups like the one here at hand.