STAMP: Symphony No. 1 -- In Memoriam of David Diamond (2006). KRUMENAUER:
Blue on Red (2005). MASLANKA: Symphony No. 2 (1985).
Karyl Carlson (soprano), Illinois State University Wind Symphony/Stephen
Albany Records TROY996 (F) (DDD) TT: 72:35.
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Symphonies of quotations. Now that tonality has become respectable again,
people have greeted it like the New Jerusalem. I strongly suspect that
the tonal-vs.-atonal wars of the previous century will have as much relevance
to future music as the Brahms-vs.-Wagner wars of the Nineteenth Century
had on Modernism. After all, try as some have to make either side of
the argument, there's nothing aesthetically better a priori about one
or the other. In the end, all we really have is a specific work of art
in front of us, and we have to arrive at our judgments within its context.
In other words, a tonal work doesn't mean a great work. If you can't
imagine a bad piece of tonal music (or a good atonal piece, for that
matter), you haven't imagined hard enough.
The program on this CD recalled these musings, familiar to me after many
years of thought. All the works are tonal, and all take different approaches
to composition. Nevertheless, the big problem of any composition is how
to say something both new (or at least personal) and worth saying.
Jack Stamp, one of the United States' leading bandmasters, has written
his first symphony "in memoriam of" American composer David
Diamond, whom Stamp considers one of his mentors. By the way, the subtitle
should be either "In memoriam David Diamond" or "In memory
of David Diamond," rather than this lame conflation. But that's
just a minor annoyance. The symphony uses themes from Diamond's Third
(finale) and Fourth (first movement), as well as from Ravel's string
quartet (scherzo). It turns out that the Diamond themes are related,
so the symphony hangs together over a span longer than a single movement.
To Stamp's credit, he has not imitated either Diamond or Ravel, and his
scoring shows a mastery of wind-ensemble sound. For me, the neatest part
is the scherzo, where Stamp cleverly adapts the chief theme of the Ravel
string quartet's first movement from strings to band. Unfortunately,
Stamp's music comes off as second-hand Copland, not just in the slow
movement, where Stamp explicitly appropriated Forties Copland and the
musical models are clearly Our Town and The Red Pony, but throughout
the symphony. I don't complain that Stamp appropriates Copland's idiom.
After all, Bruckner appropriates Wagner. Unfortunately, for all his craft,
Stamp neither gives us something as good as Copland (and what would be
the odds?) nor directs the idiom down new paths. The symphony comes across
as a composition exercise ("compose a minuet in the style of Mozart"),
rather than as a personal artistic statement.
If Stamp's symphony is assured and impersonal, Red and Blue seems to
have the opposite problem. Kevin Krumenauer, a native of Georgia, studied
in my home town of Cleveland, Ohio, which predisposed me to like the
work, because I'm that shallow. In his early thirties, he seems to me
to suffer from the classic young-composer's problem: how to find his
own voice. Red and Blue takes an original approach, but not a particularly
convincing one. Much of it strikes me as mere note-spinning. Krumenauer's
idiom seems to avoid the language of others without really convincing
you that it's his. In short, he has said something original, but not
particularly worth saying.
The Second Symphony of David Maslanka, who studied with American composer
Joseph Wood and taught Krumenauer, solves the tonal composer's dilemma
in spades. He takes from many other composers and winds up sounding like
himself. Maslanka has the outstanding ability to turn classical forms
into individual dramas. The first movement, for example, is in sonata
form, but that winds up almost beside the point. At the outset, Maslanka
sets two opposing ideas against each other: a musical chaos vs. long
chains of melody and chorale. The musical chaos derives from Minimalist
textures, while the melodies and chorales proceed in a neo-Romantic way
and tend to pull the music into order. Sometimes chaos (or complexity)
gets the upper hand, sometimes the order. Maslanka makes us care about
the outcome, which arrives at the recapitulation. The order returns,
minus the chaos. However, the very ending hardly settles into anything
comfortable. Instead, we get an enigmatic coda which leaves us up in
The second movement begins with a solo sax intoning the spiritual "Deep
River." Other winds add their licks in what comes across as free
rhythm, like a bunch of people sitting around in a Black church. Maslanka
suspends us in a no-man's land between cohesion and entropy -- the rhythm
tearing at the structure of the tune, the tune imposing a minimum of
order. Then things fall apart, and we get a wild section where apparently
anything goes, at any time. As the movement proceeds, however, one notices
what sounds like a passacaglia bass underpinning the frenzy. The bass
becomes more and more apparent until the end, when the composer once
again plunges us into austere uncertainty -- a passage for what sounds
like a combination of glockenspiel and high-pitched musical saw. A note
chimes and "bends," as if the percussion imitated a blues slide.
The finale, by far the longest movement, once again hangs together in
sonata form, and once again sonata form seems beside the point, if not
downright goofy. The movement feels like a Shostakovich rondo on turbo
overdrive, with a near-obsession on the wood block. Three themes dominate
the movement, and Maslanka develops them not only singly but together,
throwing one against the other. Again, Maslanka seems drawn to frenzy,
but this time without approaching chaos. The order here intensifies everything.
The spring gets wound so tight that you begin to wonder when the composer
will let go. Despite its joyous quality, or rather because of its unrelenting
high spirits, a disturbing quality sneaks in, as in Peewee Herman or
the smile of Batman's Joker. Maslanka loves to inhabit ambiguous emotional
spaces. Here, the traditionally-affirming finale twists and grimaces
in a fun-house mirror.
Illinois State does well, despite intonation problems in solos. The band's
ensemble is superb and the rhythms sharp, especially in the Maslanka
finale -- no mean feat. It seems that the better wind symphonies, both
British and American, comprise students these days rather than pros.
ISU has a nice little series going on Albany, consisting of both wind
classics and new work. Check 'em out.
S.G.S. (July 2008)