08 Wind BandAlchemize – Music for Wind Band
U of Southern Mississippi Wind Ensemble; Catherine A. Rand
Naxos 8.573587 (naxos.com)

This album from the Naxos Wind Band Series features performances from the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) Wind Ensemble of two substantial works from a pair of eminent American composers, both born in 1943. Joseph Schwantner’s Luminosity is subtitled “Concerto for Wind Orchestra.” The opening movement, marked spiritoso e energico, pretty well sums up the essence of this composer’s upbeat style. The work brings the percussion section up front (literally) from the get-go, though the introspective middle movement is in effect a clarinet concerto featuring USM clarinet professor Jackie McIlwain. The finale turns the spotlight back on the drum line to mercilessly aggressive effect – are you ready for some football? Not I!

By contrast, the seven movements of David Maslanka’s Hosannas strike an elegiac tone. Writing in an unabashedly tonal language, Maslanka composed over 50 works for wind ensembles before his unexpected demise last year; the album is dedicated to his memory. Chorale tunes and similar simple melodies abound in this kaleidoscopic work. The disc concludes with a tantalizing fragment of a work by Steven Bryant (born 1972), the first movement of his Alchemy in Silent Spaces, which unfolds from an extended introduction for piano and pitched percussion instruments to eventually reveal the full ensemble. It’s a pity we don’t get to hear the full potential of it; at a miserly 54 minutes the disc certainly has room to spare. Marching bands and their more refined cousins, wind ensembles, number in the thousands in the USA. Judging from the evidence of this disc the USM ensemble belongs among the elite of the order.

09 Marcus BluntMarcus Blunt – Orchestral Works
Murray McLachlan; Lesley Wilson; Manchester Camerata; Stephen Threlfall
metier msv 28570 (divineartrecords.com)

This CD presents four works by British composer Marcus Blunt (b.1947), the longest of which is the 27-minute Piano Concerto, ably performed by English pianist Murray McLachlan. Blunt describes the second movement Largo as “tense, mysterious, subdued,” words I’d apply as well to the first and third movements, up until the concerto’s surprisingly upbeat, triumphal final two minutes. Another word I’d use for this work is “ambiguous” – both in tonality and emotion – creating not-unpleasant sensations of disquiet and suspended disequilibrium.

At just under seven minutes, Aspects of Saturn for string orchestra continues the ambiguity, as Blunt observes that in astrology, the planet Saturn somehow represents the contradictory qualities of “self-discipline” and “ambition,” “limitation” and “aspiration.” The music is similarly both disciplined and assertive. The 11-minute, five-movement Concertino for Bassoon and String Orchestra, reshaping material from two of Blunt’s earlier works, was written for and performed here by Lesley Wilson. Here again, constant major-minor shifts and indefinite tonality create emotional ambivalence in what would otherwise have been an innocently playful work. Blunt’s Symphony No.2 lasts nearly 17 minutes, comprising an elegiac Andante, the most emotionally overt music on the disc, plus three gently melodious Allegretto movements.

The pervading elusiveness of Blunt’s music makes for an unusually intriguing listening experience. The Manchester Camerata under Stephen Threlfall provides solid support throughout. 

01 Sound of Silent VoicesThe Sound of Silent Voices – Children’s Poetry from the Holocaust Reflected in Musical Compositions by Young Composers
Ton Beau String Quartet; Gershon Willinger; Zachary Ebin
Independent (silentvoicesproject.zacharyebin.com)

A few years ago, violinist, music educator and founder/artistic director of the Silent Voices Project, Zachary Ebin, was doing some research at York University and happened upon I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a collection of Jewish children’s drawings and poems, created from 1942 to 1944, during their imprisonment in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

With the knowledge that only about 100 of the 15,000 children sent to Theresienstadt survived, combined with being deeply affected by the children’s heart-wrenching poetry, Ebin was inspired to find a way to keep their voices alive. His idea of having contemporary, young composers create musical works based on that poetry was the genesis of the Silent Voices Project and this ensuing CD.

Fourteen composers, from Toronto, Waterloo, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Chicago, aged 10 to 20 (not unlike the young poets in Theresienstadt) participated. With their astonishing and profoundly moving works, each of them has demonstrated remarkable skill, dignity and maturity beyond their years. Performing their stirring trios and quartets on The Sound of Silent Voices is Toronto’s outstanding Ton Beau String Quartet. Gershon Willinger, who at age two was among the youngest children liberated from Theresienstadt, provides another layer of gravitas, reciting each poem prior to its musical reading.

This is an exceptional project, a heartfelt labour of love and respect. These evocative young voices – both the poets and the composers – deserve our attention. Set aside some quiet time to listen to The Sound of Silent Voices.

02 Jeff ReillyTo Dream of Silence
Jeff Reilly
Sanctuary Concerts SCCD005 (jeffreilly.ca)

To Dream of Silence, featuring Jeff Reilly both as composer and bass clarinetist, and including one new work by Christos Hatzis, defies easy categorization. The music was inspired by a series of dreams, described in brief prose poems that are narrated as part of the tracks. There is no obvious rhythmic/melodic reference between the words and Reilly’s music, which is often gauzy background harmony supporting rhythmic melodic fragments played by Reilly and punctuated by bells and other percussion. The notes mention accompanying “sound sculptures,” the work of blacksmith John Little. It isn’t clear where Reilly’s music leaves off and the sound sculptures pick up, but perhaps it doesn’t matter.

The work on this disc is highly listenable, and the narrative of the dreams is cryptic enough to grab my interest. I’m unsure whether I’d prefer to simply read the narration, though I am sincerely put off by the announcements of the dream titles, which distract from rather than enhance the music. Your Dark Beauty is rife with Freudian overtones. Eighty Steps, Endless Chambers, and Food for a Soul are dreams that seem to conjure a child’s memories of his home, from a variety of perspectives. Taken together, the series verges on nightmare, with a particular fixation with death. That’s not to say there is only terror; there is some serenity, but unease overrides. What does one imagine Fishing to mean, when what one hooks is an angel?

Reilly, as performer of his own works, creates curious and beautiful effects within a mist of studio-produced sounds. In Hatzis’ Extreme Unction the production is cleaner and the narrative element is entirely musical. This remarkably beautiful elegy for the composer Gustav Ciamaga fits in well with the sombre tone of the disc.

Listen to 'To Dream of Silence' Now in the Listening Room

03 In the WeedsIn the Weeds
Ventus Machina
MSR Classics MS 1633 (ventusmachina.com)

New Brunswick-based woodwind quintet Ventus Machina shows off their classical roots mixed with fun and flavour in their first full-length release. They self-describe their performances as themed programs, evident here in the varied music performed by members Karin Aurell (flute, piccolo), Christie Goodwin (oboe, English horn), James Kalyn (clarinet), Ulises Aragon (French horn) and Patrick Bolduc (bassoon).

Two quintet commissions by Canadian composers are featured. Mike Titlebaum’s Short Set is his three-movement take on a jazz band’s closing tunes. The jazz-flavoured Amblin’ has jazz effects juxtaposed with classical touches and counterpoint against an “amblin’ groove.” A-Fashin’ features more traditional lush harmonies and held tunes while the final movement In the Weeds has upbeat swing grooves, with tricky speedy runs, accented group rhythmic notes and melodic conversations. Martin Kutnowski successfully incorporates his Argentinian musical roots in Tonadas Y Mateadas. After a fast jumpy opening, three main sections follow – a slow oboe theme, a horn-led waltz theme and a fast clarinet dance which resurfaces throughout the work.

Paquito D’Rivera’s Aires Tropicales is an enjoyable mood-shifting listen, while Richard Price arranges Leonard Bernstein’s famous sing-along show tunes for wind quintet subtleties in Suite from West Side Story. Ventus Machina adapts William Scribner’s arrangement of Astor Piazzolla’s Milonga Sin Palabras for English horn lead, resulting in an amazing group emulation of the bandoneon sound.

A tight ensemble with impeccable tone, pitch and breath, Ventus Machina really can play anything well.

Listen to 'In the Weeds' Now in the Listening Room

04 TorQModulations
TorQ Percussion Quartet
BeDoINT Records BR004 (torqpercussion.ca)

I first heard TorQ when I took my grandkids to TorQ’s concerts for kids at Toronto’s Harbourfront. Then, in 2015, I sang in Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with the Toronto Choral Society, TorQ providing the percussion. These guys clearly have fun performing, and it’s fun watching and listening to them.

So it is with this CD, starting with Thrown from a Loop by TorQ member Daniel Morphy. It’s just under nine minutes of music for marimbas and vibraphones, with overlapping loops “influenced,” writes Morphy, “by the music of Steve Reich.” The music has an easy swing to it, unhurried but always moving forward.

Christos Hatzis writes that his 19-minute Modulations for two vibraphones and two marimbas combines the seemingly contradictory styles of minimalism and Elliott Carter’s “metric modulation,” because “each exemplifies and needs the other for musical clarity and informational interest to ensue.” Nonetheless, instead of minimalism or Carter, Modulation’s tonal, tuneful and very jazz-inflected music distinctly reminded me of Milt Jackson’s between-the-beats magic as vibraphonist of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

The three movements of Peter Hatch’s 22-minute timespace play with various aspects of musical time and space. Time Zones presents eight different tempi simultaneously, the spatially conceived music of Spooky Action circles the audience in opposite directions, while Gravitas, writes Hatch, “is a light and humorous depiction of musical gravity” that “bends and twists our sensation of time.”

Together, nearly 50 minutes of fun listening from this very fun ensemble.

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