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American Breeze / Musical Arts Woodwind Quintet

Stucky / Brandon / Maslanka / Musical Arts Woodwin
Release Date: 09/11/2012 
Label:  Albany Records   Catalog #: 1369   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Steven Edward StuckyJenni BrandonBruce AdolpheAmy Marcy Beach,   ... 
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Musical Arts Woodwind Quintet
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

AMERICAN BREEZE Musical Arts Woodwind Quintet ALBANY 1369 (72:29)

STUCKY Serenade. BRANDON Five Frogs. ADOLPHE Night Journey. BEACH Pastorale. HIGDON Autumn Music. MASLANKA Read more class="ARIAL12b">Quintet No. 4

The striking cover design of this CD was the first thing I noticed as I removed it from the shrink wrap. It turns out that the members of the Musical Arts Woodwind Quintet came up with the idea of a contest for the art students of Ball State University, each of whom listened to all of the pieces on the present CD, and then created a visual representation of one of the works. The artwork was all displayed at a subsequent concert by the quintet, and the audience selected the winner, which turned out to be by Jaclynn Dunlap and based on the Maslanka Quintet.

The CD opens with the Serenade for wind quintet by Steven Stucky, whom I suspect needs no introduction to the readers of a review of contemporary music. Although only one movement of this five-movement work is described with an allusion to night (the second movement, “Notturno”), the entire work seems filled with nocturnal sounds, such as are sometimes heard in the music of Bartók and others. In the first movement, in fact, I imagined a will-o’-the-wisp flitting to and fro. The use of the interval of the third is prominent in a number of places, but the general style I would describe as non-tonal (as opposed to atonal). Stucky draws much contrast and color from the relatively limited sonic palette of the woodwinds and horn, and he states that he found it an interesting exercise, coming as his first chamber work after a five-year stint of writing orchestral works exclusively.

Jenni Brandon was born in 1977, and her youth may explain why she is the only composer in this collection whose music was previously unknown to me. Her Five Frogs, an imaginative onomatomusical exercise, nevertheless stands securely in the company of the older composers represented herein. The six movements—“Leaping,” “On the Lily Pad,” “Swimming,” “Bullfrog,” “Catching Bugs,” and “Epilogue”—pretty much cover the gamut of Anural specimens and activities. Brandon received her inspiration for this work from the book, One Hundred Frogs by Hiroaki Sato, a collection of frog-inspired haikus, sonnets, prose poems, and limericks. In the work, each instrument at different times and ways, “becomes” a frog; for instance, the clarinet in its leaping ability, the horn in its suave “swimming” ability, or the fairly obvious use of the bassoon in its lower register to depict the bullfrog. In the “Epilogue,” all of the frogs sing their respective songs together, in a brilliant concatenation of lines. The work is a gem, and should attract attention from other quintets wanting to explore new literature. Brandon’s other musical activities include singing (including a gig with the Boston Pops), conducting, and teaching.

Bruce Adolphe may be more widely known as a radio figure than a composer to the general populace due to his “Piano Puzzler” feature on Performance Today, but he has hardly been lacking in performances of his music by famous soloists and ensembles. Night Journey was commissioned by the Dorian Quintet and is meant to depict a nocturnal train ride. The train is suggested by an ostinato, heard primarily in the clarinet, and the dizzying, shifting pulses and constantly changing timbres evoke the dimly perceived images that rush by the viewer looking from the window of his coach at the darkened landscape. The work is extremely effective, and warrants repeated listening.

Amy Beach may be justifiably considered the dean of women composers in America, as she was pivotal in establishing women as respected composers in this country and elsewhere. Her brief Pastorale is her only foray into the woodwind quintet medium, and was written late in her life when she was a resident of the MacDowell Artist Colony. Akin to its title, the work is gentle in harmony and undulating in rhythm, definitely a stylistic anachronism by the time it was written, but utterly captivating nonetheless.

The renowned Jennifer Higdon is represented in this recital by her Autumn Music, a fairly obvious “sequel” to Barber’s ubiquitous Summer Music, one of the staples of the woodwind quintet repertory. Higdon, as Barber did, has ties with the Curtis Institute, where both composers studied and later taught (Higdon currently holding the Rock Chair in Composition there). She writes concerning her work, “Autumn comes to us in many guises: incredible explosions of color; air that suddenly snaps with crispness; a tinge of melancholy on the eve of change in all of our lives.” Thus the work is her distillation of the essence and images of autumn, and a most successful work it is, with its juxtaposition of varying and simultaneous rhythms in each of the instruments, and its introspection and melancholy.

The CD closes with the Quintet for Winds No. 4 by David Maslanka. Given that few contemporary composers have written as many as four quintets for this medium (I know of no Reichas in our era), Maslanka’s enthusiasm for winds of all kinds is evident. The Beach work aside, this is the most conservative work in this recital, and the composer states that his intention was to look back towards the French wind school epitomized by Poulenc, that quintessential melodist. Maslanka clearly loves melody, too, and this work is mildly redolent of the French master, although I think it owes more to Ibert than Poulenc. Its harmony actually sounds as much American to me as it does French, and its opening movements of quiet undulating arpeggios and lullaby morph into boisterous good humor and enthusiasm by the conclusion of the work.

The Musical Arts Woodwind Quintet, in residence at Ball State University, gives spirited performances, characterized by tight ensemble and nuanced and sensitive phrasing. The horn licks in the first movement of the Maslanka almost propelled me out of my easy chair, in fact. Whatever the usual market for recordings of woodwind quintets may be, this disc ought to transcend it, since its appeal should extend to all lovers of contemporary music. Highly recommended.

FANFARE: David DeBoor Canfield
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Works on This Recording

Serenade for Wind Quintet by Steven Edward Stucky
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Musical Arts Woodwind Quintet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1990; USA 
Five Frogs, for woodwind quintet by Jenni Brandon
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Musical Arts Woodwind Quintet
Period: Contemporary 
Written: 2002 
Night Journey by Bruce Adolphe
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Musical Arts Woodwind Quintet
Pastorale for Wind Quintet, Op. 151 by Amy Marcy Beach
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Musical Arts Woodwind Quintet
Period: Romantic 
Written: by 1942; USA 
Autumn Music by Jennifer Higdon
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Musical Arts Woodwind Quintet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1995; USA 
Quintet for Winds no 4 by David Maslanka
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Musical Arts Woodwind Quintet
Period: 21st Century 
Written: USA 

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