ZYMAN: Cycles (2005). HALPER: Concerto for Flute and Wind Ensemble (2004). MASLANKA: Symphony No. 7 (2004).
Kimberly McCoul Risinger (flute); Illinois State University Wind Symphony/Stephen K. Steele.
Albany TROY821 (F) (DDD) TT: 71:24


Well, two cheers, anyway. This CD features music by three youngish composers, all fairly conservative and tonally-based, quite typical of what went on in American tonal music of the Fifties, despite the relatively recent dates of composition. I might as well clear away the dead brush first. Matthew Halper's flute concerto is one of those works that just go by, like the endlessly flat, treeless scenery of the Plains states. Not one idea grabbed me. The orchestration created its own dreariness, drab and pretty much unvarying. In his liner notes, the composer evokes the memory of Ravel. He does himself no favors in the comparison.

Samuel Zyman, a Mexican composer based in New York City, combines the relentless drive of Revueltas's Sensemaya, the rhythms and energy of Alberto Ginastera (Estancia perhaps), and the Leonard Bernstein of West Side Story into the enormously vigorous Cycles. As its title implies, the score consists of distinct gestures that combine and re-combine, not according to classical symphonic procedures, but cyclic ones. Miraculously, it not only all hangs together, but with a few more recordings could very well become a modern lollipop. Zyman strikes me as a composer who, thank God, ignores good taste and shamelessly works to manipulate listener response with maximum effect. Dickens's Fat Boy wanted "ter makes yer flesh creep." Zyman wants you on your feet, screaming for more at the end of the piece.

David Maslanka studied with one of my favorite American composers, Joseph Wood. In his day, the mid-Fifties, Wood had a lovely reputation, including a Pulitzer, and won the respect of such knowledgeable critics as Virgil Thomson. Hardly anybody even knows his name today, let alone his music. As far as I can tell, only one CD of his works still remains in print. Maslanka, on the other hand, has been taken up by the Albany label. I don't begrudge Maslanka, but I sure as hell miss Wood.

If Maslanka's symphony is anything to go by, Wood was a wonderful teacher. The approach to symphonic form is highly personal, even poetic. The music, eminently tonal, nevertheless shows an individual ear. Maslanka doesn't hear the same way most of us do. It's not a matter of weird harmonies or even odd leaps of melody, but a kind of realignment of listening hierarchy. Maslanka takes clichés or melodic turns most composers would pass by and rubs your nose in them. The seventh symphony, inspired by hymns and folk songs, has, according to the composer, tunes you merely think you've heard before, since they all originate with the composer (excepting a single quote from a Bach chorale). In a way, Maslanka takes off from Virgil Thomson, although Maslanka exhibits a thoroughly Romantic sensibility, as opposed to Thomson's objectivism or Cubism. In four movements and with a prominent (though not concertante) piano part, each movement presents the "light" and "dark" sides of a tune. The first, for example, begins with an exuberantly loopy evocation of a Victorian hymn (the congregation's pianist in the throes of "inspiration," perhaps). The band joins in for a while, until all musical hell breaks loose -- demons coming up through the floorboards. This goes on until the "happy" returns. It's pretty much the same scenario for every movement. At one point, we even hear a reference to the Dies irae chant, re-imagined by, say, Bernard Herrmann, and the Bach chorale-tune quote -- "Du Friedensfurst, Herr Jesu Christ" (you Prince of Peace, Lord Jesus Christ).-- appears ironically in one of the "dark" episodes. Nevertheless, even though the rhetorical strategy remains unvaried from movement to movement, Maslanka travels a wide emotional range -- Americana pressed into the service of the personal, rather than of the Coplandian epic. A beautiful, rich, imaginative piece.

Steele and the band do well by each score -- which, by the way, they commissioned. The band not only plays with a great sense of ensemble, the solo players, particularly the flute and the trumpet, get inside their bits with a fine sensitivity and shading of line. They can move you almost to tears. If I'm less than enthusiastic about the Halper piece, I don't blame the performers.

S.G.S. (December 2006)