MASLANKA: Procession of the Academics. A Carl Sandburg Reader. ARCHER: Symphony No. 3.
John Koch (baritone); Tracy Koch (soprano); David Stand (speaker); Illinois State University Wind Symphony/Stephen Steele.
Albany TROY1152 (F) TT: 77:24

Odd tracts for the times. The CD contains more work by David Maslanka from the ISU Wind ensemble. Kimberly Archer studied with Maslanka, so the program coheres in that way. Maslanka is primarily known for his pieces for winds. If he's written a score involving strings, I've missed it. I find him uneven, but also possessed of an individual sensibility. He writes tonally, but not in the any of the variants of American neoclassicism or even neo-Romanticism.

Procession of the Academics was apparently written for a graduation ceremony, to accompany the faculty as they marched to their seats. Apparently it did its job. However, divorced from that setting, I found myself laughing. If I had been drinking milk, I would have snorfed some of it out my nose. I hear in it sly references to things like the Brahms Academic Festival Overture and fanfares that end on deliberate splats, like a cream pie in the face of Margaret Dumont. I have no idea whether Maslanka intended this or not. I can only hope.

The vogue for Carl Sandburg's poetry (even what used to be his three most-anthologized pieces) has faded. The neo-Whitman verse allied to regular-guy populism, especially big in the Thirties, has lost its punch. I remember Sandburg as a celebrity hobnobbing with the likes of Edward R. Murrow and Marilyn Monroe. I always considered him a virtuoso reader of his own stuff -- outsized and weirdly musical, like the poems themselves. For my money, he's still the great reader of Copland's Lincoln Portrait. He also liked to collect and sing American folk songs and collaborated with the great American composer Ruth Crawford Seeger on at least one collection of children's songs. Amongst his hymning of the Common Man and the Forgotten Man, he had genuine political concerns, but I believe his celebrity kept him out of trouble. I remember him during the Fifties defending his Socialist Party involvement on TV. He summed up what the movement had brought to the American worker -- a 40-hour work week, strong (at the time) unions, federal inspection of meat, minimum wage, and so on and so forth -- and concluded with a resounding, "And we were right!" just to settle the interviewer's hash.

Maslanka has given us a generous sampling of Sandburg. The score is one of Maslanka's most varied. We get wind-ensemble sections, vocals with ensemble, vocals with piano, melodrama, and pure recitation. As the piece unfolded, I kept thinking how many of the social ills Sandburg railed against and thought he had helped cure were now back with us. Maslanka resorts to many different styles -- from faux-naïve to dissonant, and yet the score remains pretty much of a piece. The settings are so good, they made me take another look at Sandburg's work.

Kimberly Archer, Maslanka's student, sounds a lot like her teacher, although not in the works presented here. She scores expertly, pretty much like the Maslanka of the symphonies. Her Symphony No. 3 has four movements. The first one, unfortunately, begins with an unintentionally hilarious straight crib of Holst's "Mars." She then moves to a Lisztian climax, although I must say Liszt himself was seldom that corny. Once she gets the intro out of the way, however (about three minutes in), she finds her feet and builds up a relentless, driving movement. Even the recap of the opening doesn't seem quite so hokey, due to that intervention. The second movement, for me the most successful of the four, opens with a solo piano in a kind of folk-hymn mode and moves to a middle section of film-music Americana dance before reverting to the stillness of the start. The third movement, a quick angry dance heavy on percussion, has too many empty calories (particularly a scalar fragment through a minor third again and again) to make it a necessary part of the work. To me, it just goes by, as annoying and repetitious as a freight train outside your window at 3 a.m. The finale begins with another hymn ("All creatures our God and King") -- fragments at first, which gradually coalesce into something larger and which Archer then varies. The music stands among the best of the symphony and sounds marvelous besides. The music sometimes approaches Hollywood, but to me there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. I use the term as simple description. I happen to like a lot of Hollywood.

Steele and his winds do a fine job. Indeed, I consider this disc the best of the ones I've heard. I wish I could say the same for the vocalists. Soprano Tracy Koch has a thin tone, iffy intonation and breath control, and a terminal quaver. Baritone John Koch seems just bizarre. He delivers an eerie light baritone as well as an extremely rich one, from one song to the next. On the other hand, he makes a great rat -- the one who asks the "Rat Riddles." I haven't really made up my mind about the speaker, David Stand. On the one hand, he has a strong Midwestern accent which suits Sandburg down to the ground. On the other, he doesn't really mine the texts for meaning and expression. He settles into a one-size-fits-all folksiness. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, he runs the gamut of emotions from A to A. Still, it's not enough to sink the Maslanka, which comes through as quite an affecting piece indeed.

S.G.S. (October 2010)