DAUGHERTY: Ladder to the Moon (2006). MASLANKA: Concerto for Trombone and Wind Ensemble (2007). ROUSE: Wolf Rounds (2006).
Glenn Basham (violin); Tim Conner (trombone); Frost Wind Ensemble at the University of Miami/Gary Green.
Naxos 8.572439 TT: 70:43.

Howlin' wolf, and others. Naxos bills this as an entry in their "Wind Band Classics" series. How many series does Naxos have? And it's not just ad hype, either, but a genuine series, with lots of discs. Does Naxos release more new stuff than anybody else? I certainly can't keep up with it all, but it's a nice problem for me to have.

This contains scores by American composers, all of whom connect somehow with the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, as teachers or students. Christopher Rouse and Michael Daugherty are now fairly hot tickets, while David Maslanka has a somewhat specialized reputation as a superior provider of band pieces. The works here differ from one another in their approach to the wind ensemble.

Georgia O'Keefe's New York paintings inspired Daugherty's Ladder to the Moon. There's a prominent solo violin part, although the piece isn't really a concerto (you just have to listen to Daugherty's own Fire and Blood violin concerto to immediately get the difference) but shares more with large-scale chamber music. The ensemble consists of wind octet, percussion, and double bass. I must admit that I don't see the relation between the paintings and the music, despite Daugherty's liner notes, but it doesn't really matter. If Daugherty hadn't suggested O'Keefe, I doubt that she would have occurred to you. Nevertheless, the two-movement piece sustains interest on its own. The first movement meditates almost obsessively on the interval of a descending minor third. Far from outstaying its welcome, it draws you in ever more deeply. After a slow intro, the second movement begins to jump, with almost Bernsteinian energy and rhythms. Here and there, Mozart's "Jupiter" theme sticks its oar in. This movement falls into sections more distinctly than the first, with slow music -- especially from the introduction -- alternating with fast. It strikes me as a bit diffuse, but not enough to put me off.

If Daniel Maslanka has written a piece other than for chorus or wind ensemble, I don't know it. He studied with Oberlin professor Joseph Wood, a highly poetic composer almost totally unknown today. Maslanka also studied at Michigan State with band composer H. Owen Reed, and he owes much of his scoring to Reed. Maslanka's trombone concerto aims for symphonic sweep. The composer shows little interest in "pure" music. For him, music expresses, if not thoughts, feelings, often religious ones. Themes become icons or symbols. That tendency certainly holds true in this work, conceived as an in memoriam for a friend and flutist. Maslanka uses a wind ensemble, plus piano, percussion, and solo cellist, representing the flutist's husband. As a concerto, however, the work falls short, mainly because it gives so little to the solo trombone. Indeed, the solo cello gets more important narrative shots. The piece works much better as a tone poem to an abstract narrative. The first movement, "Requiem," opens with a plainchant idea, and this mood carries through, with occasional dissonant outbursts from the orchestral mass. "Beloved" -- another slow movement -- opens with a passage for solo cello, followed by one for solo flute. Again, one wonders why Maslanka thinks of this as a trombone concerto. The movement climaxes on another chant-like theme before moving to the first quick music of the work, against which the chant plays. The music becomes increasingly agitated, but through the shakeup emerges a chorale, whether original or pre-existent, I don't know. Maslanka has a habit of putting chorales in his large-scale works. The movement ends quietly. The finale, "Be Content, Be Calm," gives us a slow opening once again, as well as another prominent cello solo. The music builds to the most emotional climax so far in the entire work -- in the words of Eliot, an "overwhelming question" -- which breaks into yet another chorale, again one I don't know. It sounds very much like Bach and functions almost identically to the chorale in the Berg violin concerto -- consolation at the end.

At certain times, the score strikes me as overly "pi" and that Maslanka often resorts to an easy expressive path, but I can't deny the moments of genuine poetry and beauty. I've decided that its virtues outweigh its flaws and that not everything need be the Berg violin concerto or the Fauré Requiem.

The most spectacular item on the disc, Christopher Rouse's Wolf Rounds made my jaw drop, simply as a feat of composition. Scored for winds, a whole lot of percussion, and electrified bass (to cut through the joyous racket the ensemble makes), it's the most "band-like" piece on the program. Beyond that, it enters the mind like a shot of adrenalin in the arm of a heavy espresso drinker. It mainlines excitement. Rouse describes the piece very well:

. . . a series of "circular" musical ideas that would repeat over and over until metamorphosing to a new idea that would then also be repeated in the same fashion until becoming yet another. These musics would be of different lengths so that that their repeated overlaps would produce a constantly changing sonic landscape. Sometimes these ideas would repeat verbatim; at other times there would be gradual but constant development within each repetition. Some instruments would introduce new musics while others would continue to repeat their material for a longer period of time before moving on to a new idea.
If the description reminds you of minimalism, it's misled you a bit. This is an extremely maximal piece. It sounds like different tapes playing at the same time, but against a clear, steady beat, with interludes of absolute rhythmic lockstep. Brazil-like cross-rhythms creep in and get the feet moving. Why the title Wolf Rounds? "Rounds" is easy enough to figure out, but why "wolf?" Rouse originally considered calling it Loops, but rejected the title as too boring. Then he thought of a bi-lingual pun: "loops"/lupus, Latin for "wolf." By me, this piece is the very best heavy metal I've ever heard.

The performers seem an all-Florida affair. Glenn Basham, concertmaster of the Naples Philharmonic, plays with bite. Tim Conner, principal trombone of the Florida Philharmonic, does what he can with the little Maslanka gives him, but the part itself tends to fade him out. I couldn't find credit for the Maslanka cellist, but the player delivers an expressive account -- with, I must add, better material. The real stars of the enterprise, however -- other than the composers themselves -- are Gary Green and the University of Miami's Frost Wind Ensemble. This is ambitious music, despite in some places light moments. The Daugherty needs the intensity and concentration of a chamber group and the Maslanka a firm hand to keep it from diffusing into the sentimental aether. I can't even comprehend the precision of ensemble and attention to clarity demanded by the Rouse. Green and his band meet all challenges, and then some. The composers should at least write them nice thank-yous.

S.G.S. (March 2011)