ZYMAN: Cycles. MASLANKA: Symphony No. 7. HALPER: Flute Concerto

ZYMAN Cycles. MASLANKA Symphony No. 7. HALPER Flute Concerto1 • Stephen K. Steele, cond; Illinois State University Wind Symphony; Kimberly McCoul Risinger (fl) • ALBANY TROY821 (71:24)

I was initially drawn to this recent release by the presence of a piece by Samuel Zyman, a Mexican-American composer now in his early 50s, and a member of the Juilliard School faculty. I have been aware of his music for about twenty years, and every one of the half-dozen or so pieces that I have heard has impressed me as the work of an authentically expressive creative voice. The piece featured here, called Cycles, is no exception. Written in 2005, it is roughly ternary in shape, with vigorously active outer sections characterized by exciting rhythms and boldly aggressive sonorities, while the central section is somewhat more subdued, and rather reminiscent of Miklós Rózsa’s Roman epic style. One wishes the 13-minute piece were longer. 

This is my first exposure to the music of David Maslanka, although I have been familiar with his name for some time, and am aware that he is one of today’s most prolific and widely performed composers of music for symphonic wind ensemble. Born in Massachusetts in 1943, he studied at Oberlin College and Michigan State University, and currently lives in Montana, where he composes full-time. The Symphony No. 7—a 37-minute work in four movements—is the most recent of his five symphonies for band, and was completed in 2004. The work sounds as if it is based on Christian hymns, although all but one—a Bach chorale—is original. The composer writes that he thinks of the impact of the work as “old songs remembered.” The point seems to be based on a juxtaposition of the manifest benignity of the hymn-like melodies against an array of associated darker and more disturbing, fantasy-like sound-images. Maslanka exhibits an expansive approach to form, a basically simple expressive rhetoric, and a generally consonant harmonic language, all of which serve neo-romantic aesthetic values, despite the presence of some modernistic decorative touches. The music sometimes calls Howard Hanson to mind, but lacks that composer’s throbbing eroticism. The piano plays a prominent role within the ensemble. The more fantastic passages are quite wild and colorful, revealing considerable expertise in scoring effectively for wind ensemble. The third movement, a demonic scherzo, is sensational, and could stand alone as a showcase to highlight an ensemble’s proficiency and brilliance. However, at its other extreme, as in the fourth movement, the music suggests a political TV commercial in its attempt to evoke an aura of wholesome goodness. Overall, it is an intriguing work of some distinction, although perhaps somewhat over-extended.

Now in his early 40s and based in New Jersey, Matthew Halper is the youngest of the composers featured on this disc. His Concerto for Flute and Wind Ensemble was composed in 2004, specifically for flutist Kimberly McCoul Risinger. A 21-minute work in a single movement, the concerto combines soloistic, virtuosic passages together with more lightly-scored chamber-like sections. The work begins promisingly with a solemn opening that compels attention immediately. However, as it unfolds, the music becomes diffuse and less focused, its sense of creative energy petering out prematurely. This is not attributable in any way to flutist Risinger, who offers a beautiful and technically strong reading. 

The packaging of the CD is rather peculiar. It is an unabashed promotional tool for the Music School at Illinois State University, and has the hermetic look of a public relations product, rather than a contribution of musical value, with information presented in an uninformative way, as if whoever compiled it did not know what it was they were compiling. For example, the conductor’s identity appears nowhere on the external product, except for his last name on the spine. The phrase “World Premieres of Commissioned Works” appears on the front and back of the booklet as well as within, and also on the tray-card. But nowhere does it state who commissioned these works, and where or when these world premieres took place. Did the university commission all three works? Were they presented together at a concert? Or does this recording precede any public performances of the pieces at hand? The booklet does contain brief notes on each composer and each piece, but it does not answer these questions. However, it does contain a two-page photo-spread of the Wind Symphony, extensive essays on the Illinois State Music School and its band program, the complete personnel of the ensemble, the complete faculty, and even the administrative staff, down to “undergraduate assistant.”

However, the above having been stated, I must add that the Illinois State School of Music has no better promotional tool than the quality of these performances. They are truly fantastic! Not only does the ensemble play with tremendous precision; what impresses me even more is the hair-raisingly meticulous tuning and balancing of harmonic sonorities, aided by extraordinary engineering (uncredited). The sheer quality of the sound can make one salivate! I have heard some extremely fine wind ensembles during the past few years, but I can’t think of any more impressive than this one. Recommended to all collectors of serious band music and to those to whom this repertoire appeals.