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Strange Humors - Mackey, Daugherty, Syler

Mackey / Daugherty / Rutgers Wind Ens / Berz
Release Date: 12/14/2010 
Label:  Naxos   Catalog #: 8572529   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Steven MackeyMichael DaughertyJames Syler
Performer:  Todd QuinlanMaureen Hurd
Conductor:  William Berz
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Rutgers Wind Ensemble
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MACKEY Strange Humors. DAUGHERTY Raise the Roof. Brooklyn Bridge. SYLER The Hound of Heaven William Berz, cond; Todd Quinlan (kd); Maureen Hurd (cl); Rutgers Wind Ens NAXOS 8.572529 (65:22)

Strange Humors is the second Rutgers Wind Ensemble release in Naxos’s valuable Wind Band Classics series. Read more style="font-style:italic">Fanfares and Overtures, the first, consists of works by prominent composers of the mid to late 20th century. Merlin Patterson reviewed that release for Fanfare in issue 33:3, finding it a fine set of performances only occasionally compromised by some dicey intonation and slack rhythms. Fair enough. The Rutgers band is not quite in the top echelon of university ensembles occupied by the likes of Eastman, Michigan, and Indiana, but it is an excellent student ensemble boasting some outstanding players when the recordings for these two discs were made. For collectors looking for this particular combination of pieces by contemporary composers, this CD can be safely recommended even though, as with the first release, some of these performances would not be first choices.

The Michael Daugherty works are by fame and substance the core of the program. Raise the Roof , a bold, playful, and ultimately Latin-jazzy salute to Notre Dame, the Empire State Building, and other architectural wonders, was written for the Detroit Symphony in 2003. An excellent recording of the premiere appears on Naxos. This concerto for timpani and orchestra in the form of a double variation was arranged by the composer for wind band in 2007 on a commission by the University of Michigan Symphonic Band and director Michael Haithcock. Their recording, on the Equilibrium label, is still the gold standard, technically and interpretively. The Michigan group better conveys the wit of the work, builds the climax with greater inevitability, and demonstrates some truly amazing precision and virtuosity: those horns, for instance, and that glissando before the cadenza. Rutgers gives them a good run for the money, though, and the unnamed Rutgers player really wails in the important trumpet solo. There is little to choose between timpanist Todd Quinlan and the Michigan soloist, Andre Dowell. Both are impressive, even if Quinlan struggles a bit with pitching in that devilish cadenza. This is, all in all, a strong reading of a piece that succeeds in raising the roof.

Brooklyn Bridge , Daugherty’s “panoramic clarinet concerto” in four movements representing views from the bridge toward the four compass points, is an even better work. It has now been recorded twice for Naxos. I gave the first one, by the Columbus State University Wind Ensemble, a nod in 33:5, especially for clarinetist John Bruce Yeh’s work. Rutgers faculty member Maureen Hurd is a good soloist, but sounds stiff next to Yeh, and even more so when compared to Michael Wayne, who premiered the work with the University of Michigan Symphonic Band in 2005. Their recording, on the same CD as Raise the Roof , is masterly. Neither Naxos version has quite the measure of this rich, subtle, and very touching score. I miss, for instance, the Michiganders’ unforced introspection in the view toward the Statue of Liberty (South), but the difference is most telling in the final (North) movement where Daugherty pays tribute to jazz great Artie Shaw. Hurd doesn’t swing very convincingly, and it is difficult for the band to do so if the soloist can’t.

Berz and musicians are more successful in the other two, less familiar, works on the disc. John Mackey, in Strange Humors , cleverly combines Western concert band instrumentation with West African drumming and Northeastern African music; think belly dancing to an Arabic jazz band. Originally written in 1998 for string quartet and djembe—that version can be heard on Mackey’s website, ostimusic.com—it was choreographed for the Parsons Dance Company during Mackey’s tenure as music director. This wind-band version premiered in 2006. The English horn and djembe soloists are particularly impressive in the quiet opening, and the band as a whole builds an overwhelming climax that could seem like part of some 1960s spy movie score if it weren’t for the sophistication and skill with which it is performed here.

Then there is the first commercial recording of James Syler’s 1988 The Hound of Heaven , a work inspired by the poem of the same name by Victorian English poet Francis Thompson. It is at first a disquieting work, wildly eclectic in its dramatic depiction of pursuit, escape, and eventual capture. Wind chimes always sound hackneyed to me, and here is no exception, but that aside I think that Syler has nicely captured the dark spirit of Thompson’s allegorical poem. My favorite version, by the Northern Illinois University Wind Ensemble, is available on the MusicEducator’s DR label as a download. In its more understated approach, it comes closer to the mystical beauty of Thompson’s verse, but Berz’s weightier reading is moving, as well, and has the practical virtue of easier availability. The Scriabinesque trumpet solos that act as transitions are again well taken by his fine principal. The exposed woodwind playing is notably well done. The transcendent final section, corresponding to the revelation that the pursuing hound is actually God offering grace to the desperate hare, is performed with great sensitivity. It is a touching ending to a rewarding disc.

FANFARE: Ronald E. Grames
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Works on This Recording

Strange Humors by Steven Mackey
Conductor:  William Berz
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Rutgers Wind Ensemble
Written: 2003 
Raise the Roof by Michael Daugherty
Performer:  Todd Quinlan (Timpani)
Conductor:  William Berz
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Rutgers Wind Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 2007 
Brooklyn Bridge by Michael Daugherty
Performer:  Maureen Hurd (Clarinet)
Conductor:  William Berz
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Rutgers Wind Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 2005; Ohio, USA 
The Hound of Heaven by James Syler
Conductor:  William Berz
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Rutgers Wind Ensemble
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1988 

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