MASLANKA: A Child's Garden of Dreams. In Memoriam. Symphony No. 4.
Dallas Wind Symphony/Jerry Junkin.
Reference Recordings RR-108 (F) (DDD) TT: 77:45

Church band. A student of American composer Joseph Wood, Daniel Maslanka has made his name primarily in music for wind ensemble. He has, I must say, a literary turn of mind, in that his reading often inspires him and his music tends to unconventional narrative shapes. He definitely wants to communicate. Most of his work has a spiritual program behind it. His musical iconography in large part comes from hymns and chorales, although the "spirituality" rarely becomes explicitly doctrinal. For reasons you'll find below, he seems to tap into the power of the Jungian spiritual world, rather than a specific church.

For example, A Child's Garden of Dreams as a title may mislead many listeners. Maslanka acknowledges the inspiration of Jung's Man and His Symbols, in particular some of a girl patient's dreams which seemed to prefigure her death. It interests me that in classical times, dreams carried omens and fates. Dreams then became primarily a literary device, powerful but without the sanction of necessary truth. Freud turned dreams around. They originated in the psyche's conflicts. They didn't show fate as much as inner truth. Jung, on the other hand, took us halfway back to the classical. Dreams, although generated by the psyche, had a truth outside the individual life. Maslanka's Garden takes for the basis of each of its five movements a dream of this little girl, as recorded by Jung. They are not particularly "nice" dreams. All of them have to do with pain, death, and resurrection, rather than with butterflies, princesses, and unicorns. The main problem with the piece comes down to the fact that you need the titles, in effect the program, for most of the movements to make musical sense. The two shining exceptions are the slow second -- a fantasia on "Black is the color of my true love's hair" -- and the jazzy scherzo third. There's really no musical argument as such. The musical scenario is that of the dream's plot. In addition, there's an awful lot of filler, or at least stuff that doesn't come off. I might lay the blame at the frequent resort to ostinatos, but not, strictly speaking, minimalist ones, although the effect is strikingly similar to the long, dull patches in Philip Glass.

In Memoriam, written to commission, succeeds the best of all the works here. It's the same kind of piece as Vaughan Williams's 5 Variants on "Dives and Lazarus" although the idioms differ (and, of course, the Vaughan Williams beats it hollow), in that it's a set of riffs, rather than strict variations, on the chorale tune "Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten" (whoever only lets God guide him). The tune, from its coding in the opening brass fanfares, turns up in many surprising ways. The surprises lead you on through the piece. It comes across not as deeply felt, but as well-made. The title of the chorale tune more than its treatment leads you to meditate on the life remembered.

The Symphony No. 4, in several sections played without pause, makes even greater use of chorale. This time, Maslanka plays with three: "Wer Gott vertraut, hat wohl gebaut" (whoever trusts God, has built well), the Old Hundred ("praise God, from whom all blessings flow"), and "Christus, der uns selig macht" (Christ, who makes us holy). The composer picks the tunes apart and recombines the pieces throughout. As in A Child's Garden, the music belongs to true fantasia, rather than classic symphonic movement, but here Maslanka, without the dangerous crutch of a literary plot, manages to hold the music together. Maslanka probably did compose to some sort of spiritual program, but one less definite yet more concerned with dramatic shape. Those who know the chorale texts may wonder what it all means, but fortunately the symphony doesn't depend on finding an answer.

Maslanka orchestrates with imagination and an ear for richness. These pieces would likely make many bands sound their best. Junkin and the Dallas Wind Symphony, one of the technically superb ensembles of the world, do them up brown, and the recorded sound matches the performances.

S.G.S. (October 2007)