MENNIN: Canzona. SCHUMAN: George Washington Bridge. NIXON: Reflections. BERNSTEIN: Symphony No. 1 (Profanation). TICHELI: Shenandoah. Blue Shades. DELLO JOIO: Variants on a Medieval Tune. Works by Daehn, Chance, Welcher

CHILLING WINDS • Malcolm W. Rowell, Jr., cond; Massachusetts Wind Orchestra • ALBANY TROY-666 (74:22)

MENNIN: Canzona. SCHUMAN: George Washington Bridge. NIXON: Reflections. BERNSTEIN/BENCRISCUTTO: Symphony No. 1: Profanation. TICHELI: Shenandoah. Blue Shades. DAEHN: With Quiet Courage. CHANCE: Variations on a Korean Folk Song. WELCHER: Zion. DELLO JOIO: Variants on a Medieval Tune.

This is an enjoyable and varied program of American music for concert band featuring fine performances by the Massachusetts Wind Orchestra, conducted by its founder, Malcolm W. Rowell, Jr. Rowell created the ensemble in 1991, drawing its membership from professional players and teachers from the New England area. Because we don’t have many professional bands in this country, most such groups function as labors of love. For this reason, programs are typically chosen with an eye toward pleasing the players as well as the listeners, and performances are usually laced with great zeal and enthusiasm. That is quite true in this case, although the zeal and enthusiasm are matched by considerable proficiency and finesse. My only reservations are that the sound quality is not quite as lucid as on other similar recordings that have come my way recently, and that the ensemble is noticeably taxed by some of the more challenging passages in the music. 

The program comprises music composed between 1942 and 1996. As is usually the case with such band miscellanies, the quality of the music ranges from the superb to the banal. To start with the former, Peter Mennin’s Canzona dates from 1951, placing it shortly after his Symphony No. 5 (and, as Mennin enthusiasts know, date of composition tells a great deal about the music’s style, as his artistic development followed a consistent linear path). Ever since its first recording by the Eastman Wind Ensemble, just a year or two after it was written, the Canzona has been a favorite among bands, and today is recognized as one of the classics of the repertoire. A masterpiece of concision, the piece packs a remarkable density of sheer musical substance into a work that usually clocks in at less than five minutes. Drawing its title, as do many Mennin works, from a form prevalent during the early Baroque, Canzona draws upon the Gabriellian practice of highlighting opposing choirs within the ensemble. It also follows the composer’s usual approach in which an unswerving course of fairly intricate, but always aurally transparent, imitative counterpoint is propelled forward vigorously and with a determination enlivened by rhythmic syncopation. This performance provides the requisite punch, but my preference among current recordings is on Citadel CTD-88128s, and features the Keystone Wind Ensemble, conducted by Jack Stamp.

Of similar vintage is William Schuman’s George Washington Bridge, another work launched on recording by the Eastman Wind Ensemble shortly after its completion. I have always felt that Schuman’s music—without recourse to obvious vernacular cues—proclaims itself unmistakably as a product of mid-20th-century New York. That is especially true of this piece, composed in 1950, with its slashing metallic polychords and jagged rhythms. With the imagery suggested by the title in mind, the nine-minute piece becomes a highly evocative “tone-painting.”

I have seen Roger Nixon’s name floating around band programs for decades, and am aware that he is a prolific composer for this medium, although I have actually heard very little of his music. Now well into his eighties, he was affiliated with San Francisco State University for many years. With a bit of the feeling of a chorale prelude, Reflections, composed in 1962, is a tiny piece, only about four minutes long, but it is eerily haunting. A new discovery for me, it left me regretting its short duration and wishing to hear a more ambitious work by this composer.

A fresh perspective is provided by Frank Bencriscutto’s arrangement for band of the central, scherzo movement, “Profanation,” from Leonard Bernstein’s “Jeremiah” Symphony. I have certainly been familiar with this symphony, which Bernstein composed at the remarkably young age of 24, for many years. However, taken out of its usual context, and clothed in unfamiliar garb, the movement provoked many fresh reactions. For one, it displays the composer’s unmistakable fingerprints throughout. True, the treatment of rhythm is a little four-square, relative to how he handled such things later on; yet I was struck by how many of his later works are anticipated in this single movement, composed so early in his life. Standing alone, it is quite effective as a listening experience.
Somewhat lower on the aesthetic hierarchy come the two pieces by Michigan-trained, California-based Frank Ticheli, now in his mid forties. Shenandoah is a straightforward, but warmly heartfelt arrangement of this beautifully touching folksong, commissioned in memory of a budding, 13-year-old musician from Texas. Composed in 1996, Blue Shades is the most recent work on the CD. It attempts to combine Ticheli’s love of early jazz with his more abstract compositional concerns. It is a fairly effective fusion, but did not sustain my interest fully, despite some undeniably exciting, extroverted moments. The Massachusetts group plays this piece especially well. 

Larry Daehn’s With Quiet Courage is a brief, touching memorial to the composer’s mother. It is a sweetly poignant hymn, so simply lyrical that one might easily set words to it.

John Barnes Chance was head of theory and composition at the University of Kentucky and was building a sizable reputation as a composer of music for band at the time of his accidental death at age 40 in 1972. His frequently-performed Variations on a Korean Folksong is based on a tune he had heard while stationed in Korea with the Army Band during the 1950s. His variations treat the tune in the conventional manner of American band music of the time, producing a crowd-pleaser of rather routine interest.

Now in his mid fifties, Dan Welcher is based at the University of Texas at Austin, and is active as a bassoonist as well as a composer. His Zion is a 10-minute tone poem that attempts to capture the composer’s emotional response to Zion National Park in Utah. These musical reflections touch not only upon the physical impact of the natural landscape, but also acknowledge the persecution of the early Mormons who settled the region. Some moments are effective in a cinematic way, but the piece as a whole is less than compelling.

Norman Dello Joio’s 1963 Variants on a Mediaeval Tune is one of this elder stateman’s most frequently performed pieces. It is skillfully wrought, and highlighted by some flashy effects. But even in the well-shaped and sharply-executed performance heard here, its pedestrian treatment of a theme that is spiritual in origin results in a piece that is banal to the core.