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 K. Steele.
Albany Records TROY996 (F) (DDD) TT: 72:35.

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 air.

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.

(July 2008)