[Caveat: I was on the faculty of the medical school at Kansas University many years ago, and you might think that would prejudice me in favor of this release from the KU Wind Ensemble. And perhaps it does. But I truly believe that on its own merits this CD is worthy of being the first release in Naxos's new 'Wind Band Classics' series.]
One of the areas of classical music composition that tends not to get much attention is that for the wind ensemble. Here we have five such works, each with its own particular merits, and all of them written (or arranged) within the past five years or so. Most immediately attractive is 'Slalom' by Carter Pann, a young composer whose Piano Concerto and Dance Partita I raved about when they were released by Naxos six years ago. This ten-minute piece attempts, successfully, to recreate in sound the sensation of downhill skiing. It is filled with whirling winds, exciting brass, and brazen percussion -- Pann is an extraordinary orchestrator -- and has an extremely virtuosic piano obbligato part played to a fare-thee-well by Avguste Antonov, a piano major at KU. This is followed by a really quite wonderful orchestration for wind ensemble of the 'Alcotts' movement of Charles Ives's beloved piano sonata, the 'Concord.' The Alcotts movement is most lyrical and harmonically the tamest of the sonata's movements. I had my doubts going in, but I was immediately won over by Jonathan Elkus's orchestration. I suppose the most complimentary thing I could say about it is that it sounds as if the music truly was conceived by Ives for this combination of instruments. The KU ensemble, already having shown themselves capable of playing with pizzazz in the Pann piece, show that they can be tenderly lyrical and convey the right sense of nostalgia that Ives's music requires.
The centerpiece of the CD is Michael Mower's 'Concerto for Flute and Wind Band' with KU flute professor David Fedele as the extraordinary soloist. The three-movement work uses everything from jazz, rock and salsa to baroque counterpoint to make its effects and it does so easily. I particularly liked the expressive middle movement and the almost demented jazziness of the finale. I suspect there isn't anything that flutist Fedele can't do; he simply flies in the outer movements and sings lyrically in the middle section. I could easily imagine this work entering the flute concerto repertoire.
The ensemble's conductor, John P. Lynch, wrote a tone poem based on the Negro spiritual 'Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?' and the ensemble plays it here. In his notes he writes that his intention was to portray 'a philosophical rhetorical question examining various contemporary views of the message of religion.' Frankly, without the composer's notes on the piece, it never would have occurred to me that this was what he was doing. But as an extended tone poem based on the spiritual it works, and that's really all should ask of absolute music.
The final work, the winner of the 2005 American Bandmasters' Association Ostwald Composition Contest, is John Mackey's 'Redline Tango.' The tango is in three sections. The title 'Redline Tango' refers to the practice of pushing an engine to its limits, 'redlining' it. Certainly in terms of wind band virtuosity, this work definitely accomplishes that. The middle section is the tango in its lowdown and 'sleazy' form (using the composer's own term for it) and the outer sections have moto perpetuo sixteenth notes that call for extreme virtuosity on the part of the musicians. The University of Kansas ensemble meets all expectations skillfuly in that regard.
Sound is excellent. Timing is a little short -- 50:56 minutes. And for those of us who love the Lawrence campus of Kansas University there is a magnificent aerial autumn picture of the campus that makes this recently transplanted Kansan a little nostalgic.