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Maslanka: Procession Of The Academics; Archer: Symphony No. 3 / Steele, Illinois State University

Release Date: 12/08/2009 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1152   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Michael PraetoriusFelix MendelssohnBenjamin BrittenDietrich Buxtehude,   ... 
Conductor:  Stephen K. Steele
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Illinois State University Wind Symphony
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 1 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MASLANKA Procession of the Academics. A Carl Sandburg Reader. 1 ARCHER Symphony No. 3 Stephen Steele, cond; John Koch (bar); 1 Tracy Koch (sop); 1 David Stand (spkr); 1 Illinois State University Wind Symphony ALBANY TROY 1152 (77:24)
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This disc is yet another offering of the work of composer David Maslanka by conductor Stephen Steele and his splendid Illinois State University Wind Symphony. In Fanfare 33:3, I offered a fairly lengthy discussion of Maslanka’s wind music and its acceptance into the band repertoire, so I will not repeat myself here, especially since the two Maslanka works presented on this program represent a bit of a departure from his usual style.

Procession of the Academics was composed for the sesquicentennial celebration of Illinois State University. It is an odd little work, opening and closing with a Renaissance-derived grand march, spiced up along the way with mildly dissonant interjections from the woodwinds and horns, and contrasted with a central section that immediately reminded me of the “Procession of the Sardar” movement from Ippolitov-Ivanov’s Caucasian Sketches . I assume the work fulfilled its ceremonial duties admirably, though its interest as a pure listening experience might be questioned.

Maslanka’s A Carl Sandburg Reader caught me completely off guard. At more than 40 minutes in length, I was expecting another of the composer’s patented cinematic extravaganzas. Much to my delight, the work, taken from Sandburg’s On the Way and scored for speaker, soprano, baritone, and wind ensemble, is composed of simple, elegant, and heartfelt settings of Sandburg’s poetry, juxtaposed with spoken recitations and authentic Illinois folk songs taken from American Folk Songs for Children , collected and edited by Ruth Crawford Seeger. Whether Sandburg’s verse is dealing with a man’s lament over the impoverished plight of his family or the atrocities of war, Maslanka’s music seems perfectly attuned to the straightforward honesty of the text. With his usual histrionics scaled back considerably, A Carl Sandburg Reader is perhaps Maslanka’s most genuine, poignant, and beautiful musical statement to date. Sadly, the performances in the vocal department leave much to be desired. Speaker David Strand, a former president of Illinois State University, has a fine, resonant voice, but his persistent deadpan delivery is not always in character with the more humorous moments of the text. Soprano Tracy Koch’s wide, wobbly vibrato causes numerous intonation problems in her singing, while John Koch’s baritone is often harsh and edgy. Further, their pseudo-operatic delivery seems out of style with the sincere, down-to-earth sentiments expressed by the texts of both the folk songs and Sandburg’s poems. Indeed, I can well imagine this work being effectively performed by actual folk singers, say Joan Baez and Pete Seeger in their respective primes. Nonetheless, A Carl Sandburg Reader remains an extremely moving musical experience.

Kimberly Archer is a new name to me. She was a student of Maslanka and based on her Symphony No. 3, which is dedicated to her teacher, it would seem that the apple did not fall far from the tree. The music presented here shares many stylistic characteristics with that of her teacher, most notably a fondness for relentless ostinati, an over-the-top approach to percussion (do they ever get to rest?), a strong influence from film music, the assimilation of Christian hymns into her musical vernacular, and an approach to symphonic development that is really little more than incessant repetition. The first and third movements of the symphony, both characterized by driving rhythmic patterns, angular melodic fragments, and percussive outbursts, could serve as battle music for a Hollywood space epic or gladiator film. The second, titled “Song for David” and by far the most successful of the four, begins and ends with tranquil New Age-derived atmosphere music similar to that used so often by Maslanka himself, contrasted with a captivating dance ripe with potential ideas that seem only partially developed. The finale is based on the hymn tune All Creatures of Our God and King , a Maslanka favorite (he uses it as the basis for at least two works of his own). The hymn is first presented quietly and only in a harmonic outline, then is subjected to several repetitious treatments until it is finally stated “triumphantly” (meaning loudly) with brass blazing, bells pealing, and percussion pounding in an extended development that contains no fewer than half a dozen false endings. The work’s quiet coda seems artificially tacked on. This piece very much calls to mind much of the music that is being played these days at marching band and DCI drum corps competitions. In fact, now that this disc is in circulation, I would be surprised if Archer did not receive a large number of requests to adapt the work for such use.

Throughout the entire disc, the Illinois State Wind Symphony plays extraordinarily well, thus maintaining the extremely high standard of performance it has established on previous releases. The recording, however, is hampered by poor balance in A Carl Sandburg Reader , where the speaker is brought very much forward yet the singers are recessed back into the ensemble texture, at times making it difficult to hear them clearly. And in the symphony, the percussion frequently obliterates the excellent playing by the woodwinds and brass. Nonetheless, if you are a fan of Maslanka you will want this disc for the Sandburg work and you’ll probably also have a positive reaction to the Archer as well.

FANFARE: Merlin Patterson
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Works on This Recording

Procession of the Academics by David Maslanka
Conductor:  Stephen K. Steele
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Illinois State University Wind Symphony
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
A Carl Sandburg Reader by David Maslanka
Conductor:  Stephen K. Steele
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Illinois State University Wind Symphony
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
Symphony no 3 by Kimberly K. Archer
Conductor:  Stephen K. Steele
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Illinois State University Wind Symphony
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 

Sound Samples

Procession of the Academics
Symphony No. 3: I. Ominous, with building intensity
Symphony No. 3: II. Song for David
Symphony No. 3: III. Aggressive
Symphony No. 3: IV. Warm and Serene
A Carl Sandburg Reader: Masses
A Carl Sandburg Reader: It Rained a Mist
A Carl Sandburg Reader: Onion Days
A Carl Sandburg Reader: Tramp on the Street
A Carl Sandburg Reader: Mag
A Carl Sandburg Reader: Limited
A Carl Sandburg Reader: The Train is A-Coming
A Carl Sandburg Reader: Happiness
A Carl Sandburg Reader: Dance Interlude
A Carl Sandburg Reader: I'm Going to Join the Army
A Carl Sandburg Reader: Johnny Get Your Hair Cut
A Carl Sandburg Reader: Wars
A Carl Sandburg Reader: Jaws
A Carl Sandburg Reader: Mary Had a Baby
A Carl Sandburg Reader: Rat Riddles
A Carl Sandburg Reader: Bath
A Carl Sandburg Reader: Our Prayer of Thanks
A Carl Sandburg Reader: What Did You Have for Your Supper?

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