by Walter Simmons
AMERICAN ORIGINALS ● Col. Lowell Graham, cond; USAF Heritage of America Band ● KLAVIER K-11188 (70:48)
GIANNINI Symphony No. 3. MENNIN Canzona. PERSICHETTI Divertimento. SCHUMAN George Washington Bridge. M. Gould Ballad. DELLO JOIO Variants on a Medieval Tune. STRAVINSKY Circus Polka
STATEMENTS ● Col. Lowell Graham, cond; USAF Heritage of America Band ● KLAVIER K-11171 (63:50)
PERSICHETTI Symphony No. 6. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Toccata Marziale. Flourish. HARTLEY Hallelujah Fantasy. McALISTER A Summer Flourish. FORTE Dance Suite on Spanish and Latin Rhythms. STAMP With Trump and Wing. BARBER Commando March. SCHMITT Dionysiaques
These recordings, featuring the USAF Heritage of America Band conducted by Col. Lowell Graham, were all recorded between 1990 and 1994. I suspect that they are re-issues of previously released recordings, although I was not previously aware of them, there is no such indication on the packages, and there are certainly no apparent signs of sonic obsolescence. Col. Graham’s bio identifies him as the chairman of the music department at the University of Texas at El Paso, after a long, active, varied, and much-honored career conducting orchestras and choruses, as well as bands.
These two recently-released compact discs offer superb performances of many of the enduring classics from what has been called the “Golden Age of American Band Music,” which generally refers to the 1950s, more or less. This period of tremendous fertility was due to a confluence of factors, especially: 1) the near-simultaneous emergence of conductors—most notably Frederick Fennell at the Eastman School, William (incorrectly called “Frank” in the liner notes) Revelli at the University of Michigan, and Richard Franko Goldman in New York City—who crusaded for the legitimacy of the wind band as a medium capable and worthy of playing serious repertoire written by the nation’s greatest composers; and 2) the willingness of such composers to test that conviction by providing challenging, stimulating, and satisfying repertoire. The result was the creation of a distinguished body of work that—as one might expect of classics—have continued to hold the interest of audiences, performers, and conductors, while setting high standards for subsequent generations of composers. (I might add that this has been a far healthier and more constructive situation than that faced by the nation’s symphony orchestras.)
Among the most justly celebrated works included on the discs at hand are—most prominently—the Symphony No. 6 (1956) of Vincent Persichetti—perhaps the most distinguished work in the repertoire—not to mention the composer’s delightfully impish, poignant, witty, and exuberant Divertimento of 1950—his own initial contribution to the medium; the Symphony No. 3 (1958) of Vittorio Giannini, which rivals the Persichetti symphony in popularity, though it is a bit more sentimental in its appeal for affection, relative to the more abstract, streamlined neo-classicism of the earlier work; William Schuman’s evocative George Washington Bridge (1950)—as representative of the composer’s personality in its nervous grandeur and brash monumentality as any work he wrote; and the Canzona (1951) of Peter Mennin—a bombshell composed between his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, which makes a major musical statement in the space of five minutes. Col. Graham describes the piece as “gritty music, with driving internal rhythms. It is cellular, in that one thing leads logically to another. Mennin’s language is usually dark and has a recognizable ‘sound’ and personality—it pulsates. I treat this music melodically, although … there are rhythmic cells that are trying to punch through its long melodic lines. I believe that maximizing these two contrasting traits accents and emphasizes the drama of the piece.”
There are also a few congenial pieces of moderate interest, such as those by Norman Dello Joio, Morton Gould, and Samuel Barber. Dello Joio’s Variants on a Medieval Tune (1963) turns up frequently on band programs, although I find the triviality of its treatment of a chant melody somewhat annoying. Gould’s Ballad (1946) is one of the earlier entrants to the repertoire. It is overall a rather contemplative work, with fewer Americanisms than are found in most of the composer’s output, though they are not entirely absent by any means. Gould was delightfully disarming in his candor, before he began to believe the claims for him as a serious creative figure made during his final years. In his program notes, he writes that most listeners find Ballad to range “from relatively pleasant to slightly boring.” Though its artistic aspirations are modest, the Commando March of Samuel Barber has become well-established in the repertoire, probably owing to the composer’s prominence in the larger scene.
There are also more recent pieces written specifically for this band and its conductor by Walter Hartley, Jack Stamp, Clark McAlister, and Aldo Forte. Hartley’s Halleluia Fantasy is a delightful little rhapsody that packs eight different early-19th-century hymn tunes into a mere four-minute duration. Stamp’s With Trump and Wing is an exuberant piece in three sections that evokes the styles of the aforementioned “Golden Age” composers. McAlister was a student of Alfred Reed, one of the most successful of the “Golden Age” composers, although one who did not always adhere to the highest artistic standards. McAlister’s A Summer Flourish is a pleasantly rousing contribution that also evokes the spirit of the 1950s. Aldo Forte was born in Cuba in 1953. His Dance Suite has a strong Latin pops flavor, while revealing considerable skill and good taste.
There are a few non-American contributions, such as Vaughan Williams’s Flourish, a little-known but immensely appealing piece of less than two minutes duration. The English master is also represented by his Toccata Marziale, a staple of the British band repertoire. Florent Schmitt’s Dionysiaques (1913) seems to have become the French work for band, and appears on one recording after another. A 10-minute piece in the “prelude-and-dance” format developed so thoroughly by Paul Creston, it is awfully tame in both its energy and its exoticism. For a change, band conductors in search of a French work might try Gabriel Fauré’s Funeral March. This is a fine piece by a major composer, and has been transcribed for the modern American band most effectively by Myron Moss.
And then there is the one real clinker, which sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb—Stravinsky’s ugly, worthless piece of detritus, his Circus Polka, a brief ballet for elephants commissioned by George Balanchine on behalf of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. Evidently the elephants reacted to the music with appropriate disdain.
As noted toward the beginning of this review, these are all basically superb performances, and I stand by that. However, since many of these pieces can be found on multiple recordings, it is only fair to the consumer that I note certain imperfections that may affect acquisition decisions. The performance of the Persichetti Symphony strikes me as a little under-energized, while the third movement is taken at a rushed tempo that seems at odds with the natural respiration of the music. And in the lovely “Soliloquy” of the Divertimento, the trumpet soloist uses a little too much vibrato. In the Giannini Symphony, certain rhythmic asymmetries in the third movement fail to emerge clearly. Aside from these minor matters, the performances are excellent.
Also generally good are the unsigned program notes, although the following sentences appear in the booklet accompanying American Originals: “[William] Schuman contributed substantially to the growth of Juilliard during his more than twenty years of leadership. He persuaded the stewards of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts to include Juilliard in the plans for their newly-designed complex.” It should be noted that Schuman was not president of Juilliard for more than twenty years. He was president for 17 years, but Peter Mennin, his successor, was president for 21. Also, while the idea of incorporating Juilliard into Lincoln Center may have been Schuman’s, it was Mennin who actually engineered and supervised the move.