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Maslanka: Symphony No. 3, Gillingham, Magnuson / Steele, Illinois State University Wind Symphony

Magnuson / Illinois State Univ Wind Sym / Ham
Release Date: 08/10/2010 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1203   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  David MaslankaDavid GillinghamRoy Magnuson
Conductor:  Stephen K. Steele
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Illinois State University Wind Symphony
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MAGNUSON Seeking, Seeking. GILLINGHAM Summer of 2008 1. MASLANKA Symphony No. 3 Stephen K. Steele, cond; 1 Jason Ham (eup); Illinois St U Wind S ALBANY TROY 1203 (77: 59)

The three works on this album are of widely varying character. Roy Magnuson (b.1983), a doctoral student at the University Read more of Illinois, states in the program notes that his Seeking, Seeking was written in 2009 “at a time of great, wonderful, scary, and fascinating change. Throughout, however, I have found solace in the fact that what you are seeking is also seeking you.” The 10-minute piece represents this belief by a restless dialogue of two contrasting thematic groups; alas, the result is disappointing. After opening with a gorgeously sonorous theme of great promise, it turns to a repellent second motif of grating dissonance, obviously inspired by a rock-music aesthetic. As this second motif becomes increasingly dominant, the piece assumes an ear-splitting loudness so extreme that, even with the volume control on my receiver turned halfway down, it still caused the speakers to vibrate so much that knick-knacks on top of them were thrown to the floor. The composer succeeded in making an impression on me, but doubtless not the one for which he hoped.

Summer of 2008 is a concerto for euphonium and orchestra by noted band composer David Gillingham (b.1947). Its three movements—“Changing Weather,” “Wondrous Starry Night,” and “Festivals”—reflect personal experiences of the composer during the season of the work’s title. The opening movement begins with a slow introduction, followed by a fast main section in sonata form, with a first theme consisting of interrupted flurries of 16th notes (recalling both an unusually violent tornado season and unspecified personal health issues of the composer), contrasted with a lyrical second subject that includes a prominent glockenspiel accompaniment. The glockenspiel also opens the second movement, consisting of a theme and five variations, with a prominent motif outlining 8-7-6-7 scale degrees in D?-Major. The result is pleasant but a bit saccharine, like feel-good Hollywood film music. The finale, in A-B-A-C-A sonata rondo form, is dominated by a theme that (as the composer himself remarks) is strongly reminiscent of the main Allegro theme of Shostakovich’s Festive Overture . Despite my mild animadversion regarding the second movement, this is a worthy piece that makes a very substantial and welcome addition to the rather small solo euphonium repertoire.

David Maslanka (b.1943) has staked out a virtually unique position as a composer of symphonies for wind ensemble that compare to those in the standard orchestral repertoire for size and complexity. Of his eight essays in that genre thus far, all but the first and sixth have been recorded, and all the recorded works have been reviewed in Fanfare (see my own recent review of No. 4 in 34:1). Merlin Patterson discusses Maslanka’s compositional style at considerable length in a review of the Eighth Symphony and other works in 33:3. While the technical side of the description is quite accurate, I do not share Patterson’s negative attitude toward the composer’s seriousness of intent and religious convictions. (Contrary to the quote from André Previn cited there, Bruckner’s greatness comes precisely from the piety of being on his knees.) That said, earnestness of intent does not by itself make for great music, and this, the longest of Maslanka’s recorded symphonies at almost 50 minutes, is of uneven quality. One problem is that four of the five movements (all but the third) have slow tempi, so the work ultimately tends to drag. Another problem, noted by Patterson, is a tendency to rely at certain points upon clichéd, overly busy figurations of rapid notes in accompaniment parts (a device that Maslanka has indicated is for him evocative of various sounds of nature).

The first movement opens solemnly with a broad ascending and descending major scale, first in unison and then with a filigree accompaniment that recalls the passacaglias of Bach’s BWV 582 and finale of Brahms’s Symphony No. 4. After clattering percussion causes the music to take a more ominous turn, a second staccato theme enters on trumpets, followed by a rather unattractive, highly dissonant section that includes air-raid siren glissandi on trombones. The opening theme returns, and the movement subsides to a quiet close that leads directly into the second movement, where soft clarinet and flute trills underlie an extended pastoral oboe solo, reminiscent of Olivier Messiaen’s bird calls. An abrupt shift to a noisy climax leads into the third-movement scherzo, a moto perpetuo that pays obvious homage to Prokofiev and Shostakovich. The last two movements are titled “Lament I” and “Lament II”; regarding them the composer states: “The music is joyous yet sorrowful, recognizing the complementary nature of life and death.” These two movements are the weakest links in the piece, and their titles complete misnomers. Rather jittery and incoherent, the fourth movement opens with a bluesy saxophone solo, after which sections of chaotic, sometimes jazzy, dissonance alternate with passages that are by turns melancholic and tunefully upbeat. The more attractive fifth movement is mostly subdued in mood, with mournful trombone and euphonium solos periodically interrupted by busywork in the woodwinds.

The performances themselves are exemplary; the ensemble plays with fine precision and intonation, and Jason Ham is a virtuoso soloist who leaves nothing to be desired in the concerto. To my knowledge, the Magnuson and Gillingham pieces are premiere recordings; Peter Burwasser reviewed the Naxos recording of the Maslanka symphony in 31: 4, but I would rate this performance as slightly superior, both for the interpretation and the recorded sound. Nevertheless, the disparity between them is not great, so that I suspect the deciding factor between the two CDs would be which filler pieces one wants with the Maslanka. If you buy this disc, beware the volume of the opening Magnuson work.

FANFARE: James A. Altena
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 3 by David Maslanka
Conductor:  Stephen K. Steele
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Illinois State University Wind Symphony
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1991; USA 
Summer of 2008 by David Gillingham
Conductor:  Stephen K. Steele
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Illinois State University Wind Symphony
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 
Seeking, Seeking by Roy Magnuson
Conductor:  Stephen K. Steele
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Illinois State University Wind Symphony
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 

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