by Walter Simmons
PAGEANT – Jack Stamp, cond; Keystone Wind Ensemble – CITADEL CTD 88132 (66:12)
BARBER Commando March. PERSICHETTI Pageant. W. SCHUMAN Newsreel in Five Shots. J. W. JENKINS American Overture. DELLO JOIO Scenes from “The Louvre”. R. R. BENNETT Symphonic Songs. CHANCE Incantation and Dance. F. WERLE Concertino for Three Brass and Band. STAMP Cheers!
Here is yet another new release in the Keystone Wind Ensemble’s fine series of recordings on Citadel. I must, however, begin with a digression.
As I mentioned in my review of the KWE’s most recent disc in the last issue of Fanfare, the 1950s were a “golden age of American band music.” It was perhaps Edwin Franko Goldman and his son Richard who, during the early 1940s, began to encourage some of America’s most distinguished composers to devote attention to the concert band medium, but it was during the 1950s that the finest works really began to appear. Persichetti’s Symphony No. 6 and smaller works, Giannini’s Symphony No. 3 and smaller works, Mennin’s Canzona, Schuman’s George Washington Bridge and Chester Overture, and many other treasures all appeared during this decade. It was in 1952 that Frederick Fennell formed the Eastman Symphonic Wind Ensemble, conceived as a virtuoso group capable of the subtlety, precision, and flexibility of a fine symphony orchestra, and it was just a few years later that Mercury Records initiated its brilliantly-produced series of recordings that featured the ESWE in breath-taking performances of first-class repertoire. These recordings provided inspiration, motivation, and a common ideal as a frame of reference for a generation of students in high school bands throughout the country. Much of the activity involving these bands was coordinated by the Music Educators National Conference, a national organization with individual state divisions that sponsored annual competitions and festivals of hand-picked ensembles. As a participant in this movement during the Kennedy years, I continue to regard that experience as one of the most positive and formative aspects of my adolescence. Although many of those wonderful Eastman recordings are now available on CD, it is a delight to see new versions of some of this music appear, and to encounter a new group on the scene to champion it. I only hope that there is a new generation of listeners to appreciate it as well.
The personal history mentioned above may explain why for me the most exciting piece on this new CD is the American Overture by Joseph Wilcox Jenkins — a piece that the ESWE never recorded. All I know about Jenkins appears in the notes to this recording: that he studied with Hanson and Persichetti, was most recently associated with Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and is now 70 years old. I have never heard any of his other music, but I can say that this American Overture, composed in 1956, and played by me in one of those regional bands just a handful of years later, vividly captures the innocence, enthusiasm, and optimism of adolescence experienced during that period. Although the foregoing remarks indicate plainly that I make no pretense at hearing this piece “objectively,” I know perfectly well that it is no immortal masterpiece. On the other hand, despite its utterly conventional formal design, it fulfills the expectations of a five-minute overture ideally, without a moment that is superfluous, awkward, insincere, or lacking in taste. I played this recording for a few friends who do not share my personal background, and they found the piece delightful, so I am hopeful that other listeners will as well.
Vincent Persichetti’s significance as a composer is indelibly associated with the blossoming of the wind ensemble medium during the 1950s — indeed, it is hard to imagine one without the other, and it is safe to say that of the many composers who made important contributions to this repertoire, Persichetti’s are not only the most musically rewarding, but are also the most organically derived outgrowths of the medium itself. In other words, for Persichetti the medium was an essential part of the message. This, though true in a superficial sense of many pedestrian efforts (marches and other utilitarian fodder), is not so true of more substantial, musically ambitious efforts.
Persichetti composed Pageant in 1953, as something of a sequel to the Psalmwritten the previous year. In a two-part slow-fast design, Pageant is an accessible, warmly exuberant work whose simple directness conceals a formal sophistication that lends the music strength and durability. Listeners interested in exploring the full range of Persichetti’s music for winds are directed to any of several excellent performances of his Symphony No. 6, as well as to the all-Persichetti band CD on Harmonia Mundi (HMU 907092), featuring seven works played by the London Symphony winds, under the direction of David Amos.
William Schuman’s Newsreel in Five Shots dates from 1941, the same year as the popular Third Symphony. Listeners who know the composer chiefly through his grand, hard-edged symphonic canvases are likely to be surprised by this group of five brash and witty sketches that add up to a total of eight minutes. On the other hand, those who know Schuman’s music well will hear traces of some of his other “unbuttoned” pieces, such as Holiday Song and The Mighty Casey (which came later).
Samuel Barber is represented by his highly uncharacteristic Commando March, written during the composer’s military stint during World War II, a period when he was making a number of “excursions” into relatively alien stylistic territory, with uneven results. The Commando March must be one of America’s least macho marches, and used to evoke snickers from us supercilious teenagers. However, while it is far from top-drawer Barber, it is a very sophisticated little piece, with harmonic subtleties that emerge with particular clarity in this extremely transparent and deft performance.
Robert Russell Bennett is, of course, best known as an arranger of some 300 Broadway musicals. But his most widely performed original music comprises the pieces he wrote for band, especially the Suite of Old American Dances. The Symphonic Songs offered here were composed in 1957 and display the clever and sophisticated treatment of vernacular styles that one might expect. The first section, entitled “Serenade,” features some especially nifty rhythmic effects.
Norman Dello Joio’s Scenes from “The Louvre,” is a suite taken from his Emmy Award-winning score for a 1962 television documentary. Typical of the composer, the music is both innocuous and vacuous, whatever color it has deriving from real or ersatz Renaissance material and French folk tunes.
John Barnes Chance was a composer whose body of work, which emphasized music for winds, was abbreviated by his untimely death in 1972 at the age of 40. Incantation and Dance, composed in 1962, is probably his best known work. Although its title brings to mind Paul Creston, who composed many works with similar appellations, this piece bears very little resemblance to the music of the elder master, lacking its forceful gestures and bacchanalian kinetic energy. To the contrary, Incantation and Dance is rather subdued, and is scored relatively lightly and transparently, with particularly elaborate and effective use of percussion.
Born in 1929, Floyd Werle is another composer whose reputation centers chiefly around his music for winds. The few pieces of his that have come my way have a dry, impersonal quality that holds little appeal for me. This 7-minute Concertino features a trio of trumpet, trombone, and tuba. The first movement is almost a Kurt Weill paraphrase, the second movement is utterly nondescript, while the concluding “Greek Dance,” in the expected 7-beat meter, sounds more like Leonard Bernstein, another enthusiast of septameter.
The disc concludes with conductor Jack Stamp’s own brash and vigorous Cheers!, a brief canonic fanfare written in tribute to England’s great band music tradition.
Once again the Keystone Wind Ensemble makes an impressive showing — perhaps even more so than their previous disc. I eagerly look forward to further releases of this caliber.