by Walter Simmons
CRESTON Concertino for Marimba and Orchestra. MILHAUD Concerto for Marimba, Vibraphone, and Orchestra. B. HUMMEL Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra Ÿ Peter Sadlo (perc); Peter Falk, cond; Hessian Radio SO; Wolfgang Rögner, cond; Bamberg SO Ÿ KOCH-SCHWANN 3-6415-2 H1 (69:34)
CRESTON Celebration Overture. PERSICHETTI Bagatelles. MENNIN Canzona. BERGSMA March with Trumpets. DELLO JOIO Songs of Abelard. M. GOULD Fanfare for Freedom. CAMPHOUSE Watchman Tell Us of the Night. MAHR Fantasia in G Ÿ Jack Stamp, cond; Keystone Wind Ensemble; Curt Scheib (bar)Ÿ CITADEL CTD-88128 (62:07)
These new releases revive two works that represent sub-genres for which Paul Creston became somewhat typecast as a composer: concertos featuring unusual solo instruments and lively, festive concert-openers. During the 1940s and early 50s, when Creston’s popularity was at its zenith, commissions increasingly requested these types of pieces from him. Although he seems to have been a willing participant in this process, which kept his name before the public and from which he profited financially, it did diminish his reputation somewhat in the long run. After the late 1950s, when the American symphonic genre was deemed passé, Creston’s most significant symphonic works were forgotten, while his concertos for odd instruments and his overtures continued to be heard with relative frequency, defining his compositional identity from around 1960 until shortly after his death in 1985, when conductors like David Amos and Gerard Schwarz began to give his other works a second look.
As it stands, Creston’s output is rather compartmentalized, with a distinct formal and stylistic character applied to each category of work, and with considerable uniformity within each category. Virtuoso pieces for solo instrument with orchestra form one such category. These works tend to be lively and exuberant, with an ingratiating sunniness of disposition, uncomplicated by emotional ambiguity of any kind. Their extroverted character, combined with typically Crestonian syncopated rhythmic manipulations, give the music a jazzy, almost slick quality, reminiscent at times of the commercial music of the day. During the best moments of these concertos, Creston builds his syncopated polyrhythms to almost manic levels of excitement, or embeds richly throbbing melodies within lush textures of expanding harmonic intensity. Dating from 1940 when the composer was 34, the Marimba Concertino offers little of this, merely bouncing along with a benign geniality. His first virtuoso vehicle, it is also said to be the first concerted work to feature the instrument.
As far as I know, this is the first complete recording of the Marimba Concertino. Readers preparing to dispute this statement might be remembering a Columbia LP from the mid-1960s that featured soloists from the Philadelphia Orchestra. That disc included the work’s first movement only, although this was not indicated anywhere but on the record label itself. The full Concertino comprises three movements that last 17 minutes. Soloist Peter Sadlo is more than adequate to the task, while the Hessian Radio Orchestra provides a smoothly polished accompaniment. My only complaint is that the tempos of the fast movements are a little too — not exactly slow, but — settled, lending a sort of self-satisfied quality, rather than whatever urgency might otherwise be elicited from the work.
The festive-type overture is another Creston specialty. Into this category fall such pieces as the popular Dance Overture, Toccata (commissioned and premiered by Szell/Cleveland, recorded by Schwarz/Seattle), Festive Overture, and the piece offered here by the Keystone Wind Ensemble, Celebration Overture. Composed in 1954, it is a lively, exuberant work in a conventional three-part design: a rousing, energetic opening section, followed by a sweetly bucolic central portion, leading to a bracing, martial idea that builds to a triumphant conclusion. Many listeners might readily dismiss the piece as a utilitarian pot-boiler; but Creston devotees will detect that manic excitement — especially in the concluding section — that comprises one aspect of this composer’s unique and distinctive musical personality. The Keystone group provides a solid, well-prepared reading, but one that, interestingly, suffers a bit from the same slightly sedated quality noted with regard to the Marimba Concertino recording. Perhaps I’m being too fussy, but if you want to hear what I’m missing, listen to Christian Lindberg’s rendition of Creston’s Trombone Fantasy with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra, conducted by James DePreist (BIS CD-628). I consider this to be the best performance of any Creston work ever recorded.
Now, to return to the Koch/Schwann release: Bertold Hummel’s four-movement Percussion Concerto is really the most ambitious work on the disc. More than half an hour in duration, it was composed during the years 1978-82. Yet despite an elaborate structural concept, with heavily meaningful use of the B-A-C-H and D-S-C-H motifs, the work makes very little impact. Yes, there are some arresting ideas, evocative effects, and powerful gestures; but they are few and far between. As a listening experience, the concerto fails to hold more than sporadic interest.
Darius Milhaud’s Concerto for Marimba, Vibraphone, and Orchestra was composed in 1947. It is a light-hearted, jaunty work, not unlike the Creston Concertino in scope, weight, and attitude, and even somewhat in its language, although the Milhaud is rather diffuse in structure, relative to the hermetic formal clarity characteristic of all of Creston’s music. The first movement features the marimba, the second, the vibraphone, and the third, both. As in the Creston, the performance, though technically impeccable, could benefit from a bit more kinetic “swing”.
The Citadel disc is the latest release in Citadel’s Keystone Wind Ensemble recording series– a series that is most welcome to all enthusiasts of serious American music for winds. The Keystone Wind Ensemble is based at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and was formed, I understand, by its conductor, Jack Stamp, who I gather is quite a determined and ambitious fellow. While not achieving the degree of polish, precision, and flexibility offered by the legendary Eastman Wind Ensemble during its Fennell days, the Keystone group seems to have attained quite a level of accomplishment. Its current ongoing recording series is reviving some of the classics from the 1950s — a real “golden age” for the American wind ensemble repertoire — while bringing to the attention of the general listening public some of the more recent composers and pieces that have contributed to the genre. As an enthusiast of this repertoire myself, ever since my own participation in it during the early 1960s, I can only hope that the audience for such recordings is large enough to sustain an ongoing series of new releases. I also hope that Stamp will turn his attention to the three works of the genre I feel are in most urgent need of more widespread exposure: Vittorio Giannini’s Variations and Fugue (1964), the finest but perhaps least-known of this neglected composer’s handful of works for band; Nicolas Flagello’s visionary Symphony of the Winds (1970), available only in a woefully inadequate Italian performance that happens to appear on Citadel’s “Flagello Conducts Flagello” disc (CTD-88115); and Arnold Rosner’s Trinity, a more recent (1988) and as yet undiscovered masterpiece by a composer whose work has been generating an enthusiastic and growing following.
As for the disc at hand, in the category of “golden age” classics is Peter Mennin’s brief Canzona. Composed in 1951, immediately after the Fifth Symphony (which it resembles greatly), this brilliantly streamlined five-minute study in imitative counterpoint receives a stunning performance.
Another masterpiece of concision is Vincent Persichetti’s four Bagatelles from 1961. Persichetti is probably the American composer who has made the most distinguished contribution to the band literature. The Bagatelles have been recorded several times before, despite the “World Premiere Recording” claim on the disc, although never with the conviction heard in this performance. Its four short pieces lasting just a little more than five minutes, the Bagatelles may seem to represent a minor effort, but this solid, precise, and insightful reading brings these characteristically aphoristic miniatures to life, revealing their true substance.
The work apparently intended as the disc’s centerpiece is Norman Dello Joio’s Songs of Abelard, a setting of an unidentified text (printed in the booklet), adapted for baritone and wind ensemble in 1969 from material created the previous year for Martha Graham’s A Time of Snow. As with so much of this composer’s output, the music is blandly innocuous and largely uninteresting (except for a few fairly evocative moments). Furthermore, the style and tone of the piece do not (except in the most superficial way) suggest the spirit and ethos of the text, which concerns, of course, the love affair between the 12th-century theologian and his student. Baritone Curt Scheib fulfills his role adequately.
William Bergsma was one of the talented composers, along with Mennin and Persichetti, invited by William Schuman to join the Juilliard faculty during the late 1940s. He produced some fine work, though March with Trumpets is not terribly individual in any way. However, it is more sophisticated than the typical military march, while displaying the zest and enthusiasm so typical of American Neoclassicism of the 1950s.
There is not much to say about Morton Gould’s minute-and-a-half fanfare, except that it is exactly what one would expect — American-sounding and busy.
Mark Camphouse (b. 1954) is Director of Bands at Radford University in Virginia. It would be easy to dismiss his contribution — a 15-minute symphonic rhapsody entitled Watchman, Tell Us of the Night, intended to portray “the loneliness, loss of innocence and enduring hope of the survivor of child abuse”– as crass exploitation disguised as middlebrow populism. And, I must admit that the fact that the only other Camphouse work I know is A Movement for Rosa — dedicated to Rosa Parks — prompts the unpleasant suspicion that the composer draws his inspiration from sociopolitical buzzwords. On the other hand, one might look more charitably on an approach, rooted in the familiar language of contemporary film and television music (with gestures and sonorities often reminiscent of Joseph Schwantner, but less ambitious or sophisticated), that attempts to provide a satisfying emotional and musical experience for both audience and performers without requiring multiple hearings or intense concentration. The music makes only modest demands on the players, yet is dramatic, melodic, and shaped along comfortably conventional lines to produce a “feel-good” experience. One might further consider that the use of a familiar contemporary topic provides the listener with a point of focus toward which to direct his emotional attention. One might even go so far as to speculate that the sort of amateur participation in the shared realization of composed music encouraged by pieces like this is a prerequisite for the development of a culture that truly understands and appreciates art-music. These are some of the thoughts that ran through my mind while listening to this piece.
The disc concludes with the Fantasia in G by Minnesota-based Timothy Mahr. This is a playful little overture that dances rather cavalierly around the tune from Beethoven’s Ninth.