Fanfare Magazine Reviews of UNLV Wind Orchestra Album 24k Gould

Sep. 20, 2018

COLLECTIONS: Ensemble

24K GOULD ● Thomas G. Leslie, 1Zane Douglass, cond; 2Barbara Hull (tpt); 3Stephen Caplan (ob); UNLV Wind O ● KLAVIER 11222 (59:23)

2M. GOULD (arr. Jirousek) Festive Music. TANAKA Rift. HANSON Dies Natalis. 1,3FRANÇAIX (arr. Watson) L’Horloge de Flore. ARNOLD (arr. Paynter) Tam O’Shanter

Henry Fogel review:

The University of Nevada, Las Vegas Wind Orchestra has been receiving consistently good reviews from a wide range of Fanfare critics, including me, and this may be the best disc yet. What particularly distinguishes it is the variety and quality of the program. Wind band programs risk monotony because much of the repertoire comes from a very similar sound world. But there is the possibility of finding significant variety, if the conductor or programmer makes the effort, which is certainly the case here.

It is hard to choose a favorite. I have always enjoyed Jean Françaix’s L’horloge de flore, (“Flower Clock”), originally composed for oboe and small orchestra. I feared that a wind arrangement might overwhelm the music’s fragile charm, but Ken Watson’s version respects the delicacy and elegance of the original, and oboist Stephen Caplan’s sensitive playing captures the color, wit, and moods that Françaix was trying to convey with the various flowers he depicts at different hours of the day. I wouldn’t be without the John de Lancie/André Previn/LSO recording (RCA), which is coupled with the Strauss Oboe Concerto and other shorter works, but this version is a lovely alternative with the different colors of the wind ensemble.

Morton Gould’s Festive Music was originally written for orchestra as well, and Mark Jirousek’s transcription fits Gould’s style perfectly. Jirousek wrote the note about how he came to get Gould’s approval and create his version. Barbara Hull plays the lyrical trumpet solo in the second-movement “Interlude” with a true cantabile line. The overall performance is superb, matching in conviction the composer’s own reading with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Julian Tanaka is a jazz saxophonist who studied at UNLV and is achieving a strong reputation with his own quartet. While the jazz influence is certainly present in Rift, particularly in the central slow portion, one also hears the influence of what we call traditional classical music, for lack of a better term. Tanaka himself, in the accompanying notes, written in the third person, names Shostakovich, Duke Ellington, and William Schuman as inspirations, and I would add Leonard Bernstein to the list. Rift is a delightful work and quite impressive for what Tanaka calls his “first foray into wind band composition.”

Howard Hanson’s Dies Natalis is the other work on the disc that was originally conceived for band, and it is one of his strongest pieces. It is based on an ancient Lutheran Christmas choral tune. Hanson is quoted as saying, “I used to sing it as a boy in the Swedish Lutheran Church of Wahoo, Nebraska. This chorale has, without doubt, been the greatest single musical influence in my life as a composer.” It serves as a lovely basis of this work, which builds over a fourteen minute span to a grand, radiant conclusion.

Malcolm Arnold’s concert overture Tam O’Shanter is one of his few works to have even a small place in the international repertoire, because it serves to play the role of a lively curtain-raiser for orchestral concerts. John P. Paynter, who arranged the piece for wind orchestra, was a legend at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. As a student there in 1950–51 he began to conduct the wind ensemble. In 1953 he took over as its permanent conductor and held the position until his death in 1996. Paynter was also known for his arrangements, and the sparkle and brilliance of this version of Tam O’Shanter make a perfect alternative to the original.

Throughout, the energy, precision, and musicality of the playing makes clear that the Wind Orchestra is a remarkable program at UNLV. One prior release was criticized for omitting program notes, and this has now been corrected with brief, helpful notes for each piece, though I wish there were more biographical information about Tanaka.

The recorded sound is stunning in its clarity, openness, and richness. I expect to enjoy this recording many times in the future, not something I would say about most wind band discs.

 

Dave Saemann review:

Few sounds are as thrilling and ravishing as that of a good wind band. The massed tones of the instrumental choirs and the beauty with which they blend are truly exciting. The University of Nevada at Las Vegas Wind Orchestra is a great band. Each of its sections makes a full, luscious sound, and the band’s overall sonority, even within the limitations of what the recording art can do, is enveloping and heart stirring. Their conductor, Thomas G. Leslie, clearly is a very fine musician, not merely as an orchestral trainer, but also in his excellent choice of repertoire and his ability to bring off satisfying performances in a number of different styles. Whether in the slightly academic modernism of Morton Gould, the full fledged romanticism of Howard Hanson (Virgil Thomson said that Hanson composed as if the 20th century had never happened.), or in the colorful, idiosyncratic brilliance of Malcolm Arnold, Leslie conducts with great sympathy and power. He is a brilliant judge of when to exert control and when to give the band its head, abetted in his search for expression by a splendid collection of first desk players. The UNLV Wind Orchestra’s Associate Conductor, Zane Douglass, makes an appearance in a piece by Jean Françaix. He demonstrates the subtlety and piquant colors this band is capable of. All in all, 24K Gould is a wonderful demonstration of everything this band can do, while providing a rousing musical experience exhibiting variety and contrast.

Morton Gould’s Festive Music is in three sections: Fanfare, Interlude, and Dance. The Interlude is one of those evocative, atmospheric moments Gould is so good at crafting, featuring very fine trumpet solos. The concluding Dance carries with it a whiff of Gould’s Latin American Symphonette, but with more Northern rhythmic accents. Rift Is Julian Tanaka’s first work for wind band. It is highly accomplished. Citing Shostakovich, William Schuman, and Duke Ellington as influences, Tanaka plays with colors and sonorities with all the enthusiasm of a kid in a candy store. He writes saxophone solos that sound straight out of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony. Howard Hanson’s Dies Natalis is a test of a band’s ability to sustain and build up dynamic levels. Leslie’s control makes Hanson’s emotions seem genuine, when they easily could turn mawkish and sentimental. Jean Françaix’s Flower Clock is built on the idea of a clock that tells the time of day by the times different flowers bloom. Composed for the great John de Lancie of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the solo oboe part here is lovingly assumed by Stephen Caplan. The influence of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin (a de Lancie specialty) is strongly felt. Malcolm Arnold’s overture Tam O’Shanter is a brilliant, roguish showpiece, sort of Arnold’s Scottish take on Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. Arnold’s love of Berlioz shines in the instrumental coloring. Alexander Gibson made a great recording of the original symphonic version on his album Witches’ Brew, but Leslie is just as demonic and entertaining.

Veteran engineer Bruce Leek has provided excellent sound, although I doubt recording technology has reached the point where the live symphonic band experience can be duplicated. I can’t say how much I am impressed by the UNLV Wind Orchestra. Band playing rarely gets better than this. 24K Gould is 24K indeed. Highly recommended.

Huntley Dentreview:

My memories of football half-times, Sousa marches, and the U.S. Marine Corps Band playing “Hail to the Chief” were greatly expanded in a previous release by the Wind Orchestra at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. A wind orchestra has nearly the scope of an orchestra with strings, and here there’s a focus on soloists, whether it is in the offstage trumpet in Morton Gould’s Festive Music, the saxophone in the bluesy middle section of Julian Tanaka’s Rift, or the concertante writing for oboe in Jean Françaix’s delightful suite, L’horloge de flore. The typical sonority of massed brass and woodwinds that I hear in my mind’s ear has been replaced with ingenious instrumental colors.

As successful as all of the present works are, I got the most pleasure and surprise from Tanaka’s Rift. In a brief note the composer tells us that this is his first composition for wind band. If so, he has quickly mastered how to extract ensemble and solo colors. The nine-minute work consists of three major transformations, as Tanaka calls them, on a theme stated by solo clarinet. I wouldn’t call the harmonies distinctive, but the “blues in the night” middle section is quite evocative.

By naming this release after Morton Gould, his Festive Music, originally written in three movements for orchestra in 1964, gets prominence, all the more because this is the premiere recording of the wind-band arrangement devised a quarter century ago by Mark Jirousek. The music isn’t Gould in his Americana mode, however, but a work dominated by darker, more restless moods than I associate with the famous pops concert figure. Gould struggled to be taken seriously as an original composer. Without sounding (to me, at least) very festive, the Fanfare, Interlude, and Dance of Festive Music are thoughtfully composed in an idiom not far from William Schuman and David Diamond, the offstage trumpet—hauntingly played by Barbara Hull—looking back to Ives’s Unanswered Question.

Françaix composed his “Flower Clock” in seven movements depicting seven flowers that open at different times of day, beginning at three in the morning (the notion of a flower clock was historically suggested by the great Swedish taxonomist Karl Linnaeus). The suite was written for the same oboist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, John de Lancie, who as a G.I. knocking on Richard Strauss’s door inspired his Oboe Concerto. The mood is light and pastoral, the rhythms close to folk dances. Not only is oboist Stephen Caplan a thoroughly expert and enjoyable soloist, but the transparency of the transcription by Ken Watson affords a rare opportunity to hear post-Mozart winds play like chamber musicians in a divertimento.

Howard Hanson has long been a beacon light for listeners and critics who advance the cause of neo-Romanticism in American classical music. If memory serves, we played a wind transcription of part of Hanson’s “Nordic” Symphony in my none-too-shabby high school band. The soaring, outdoorsy idiom I associate with that score isn’t present in Dies Natalis from 1972, and despite the title, there’s no feeling of Christmas. Instead, Hanson bases his 14-minute theme and variations on a solemn—one might even say gloomy—choral theme from childhood Lutheran church services. The music is skillfully wrought and serves to give the program its fair share of gravamen.

We end on hijinks in a transcription of Malcolm Arnold’s concert overture Tam O’Shanter, named after the hero of Robert Burns’s narrative poem from 1790 (most of us will only think of the woolen hat). In the poem the roisterous Tam, a farmer who loves the pub more than his wife, is wandering home drunk one night. In the local church he spies a whirling dance of witches and warlocks led by the Devil. Taken with a witch in a short skit, Tam shouts out his compliments, only to have the demon troupe run after him. He flees in panic, hoping to reach the River Doon in time, because witches and warlocks (I’m sure you know this) dare not cross a running stream. He makes his escape just as the lead witch grabs and pulls off his horse’s tail.  

Arnold, who must rank among the most good-humored of composers, is well loved for this trait in Britain, however little attention we pay to him here, and Tam O’Shanter is suitably boisterous, filled with Scottish tunes and dancing. The work’s eeriness and devilry owe more than a little to Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain but are yet quite colorful.  The arrangement by John Paynter preserves every scrap of instrumental color in the original. The student Wind Orchestra musicians take the opportunity to have some rollicking fun while continuing to play, as they do throughout, with professional skill and precision.

Conductor Thomas G. Leslie, as director of the wind band department at UNLV, deserves high praise for the excellence of the Wind Orchestra, which he leads with a combination of musicality, confidence, and depth. Zane Douglass, leading L’horloge de flore, is also quite fine. The recorded sound is very good, the program notes informative. As listeners will note immediately, the track listing is inaccurate, but the booklet denotes each movement of the Gould and Françaix separately, which is where the confusion lies, so it’s relatively easy to find the track you want.