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Dragon Rhyme - Hartt School Wind Ensemble, Glen Adsit, Carrie Koffman & Anton Miller


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Fanfare January/February 2013

Glen Adsit, the Hartt School, and the Joy of Commissioning

BY RONALD E. GRAMES

The Naxos Wind Band Classics series, initiated back in 2006, has been one of the more interesting of this adventurous label’s many ventures into little-recorded repertoire. There have been a couple of reissues of previous releases from other labels. However, from the start Naxos has drawn upon recordings from this nation’s many fine collegiate wind ensembles, produced by typically first-rate in-house recording staff, to build its catalog. The standard of performance has been impressively high, though there have been a few surprises. Truth be told, some well-known ensembles have not quite lived up to expectations, while others, with names less renowned, have created an exceptionally positive impression.

The latter was my experience in 2009 when I listened to a CD from this series recorded by the Hartt School Wind Ensemble directed by Glen Adsit. I hope I will be forgiven if I say that the Hartt School at the University of Hartford, Connecticut, was not on my radar as one of the great music schools in America. I bought the CD, Passaggi, for the soloist Joseph Alessi, principal trombonist of the New York Philharmonic, who is certainly one of the great trombonists in the world. What I discovered, besides the anticipated excellence of Alessi, was a program of uniformly impressive works performed with extraordinary skill by this previously unknown (to me) wind ensemble. Equally impressive was the quality of interpretation that Adsit drew from his student musicians, the performance of faculty percussion soloist Benjamin Toth, and the audiophile quality of the Hartt School recording.

Now, three years and some months later a new release, named Dragon Rhyme, has been produced by Adsit and his student ensemble, and it demonstrates without a doubt that the excellence of the first was not a fluke. Glen Adsit has been the Hartt School director of bands since the fall of 2000. “Prior to taking this position, I was the associate director of bands at the University of New Mexico, and prior to that I taught at a middle and high school in Michigan. Frankly I have loved every job I have had.”

REG: I have to say that I knew little about the Hartt School when I ran into your first Naxos release and was quite pleasantly surprised by the professional quality of both performance and production. Are you folks in Hartford some sort of well-kept secret among the cognoscenti?

GA: “Unfortunately, the Hartt School is too much of a well-kept secret. I hope that projects like this CD will help to put the school a bit more on the map. We have a superb faculty that is really committed to the students. One of the aspects that I like so much about the Hartt School is the terrific diversity of majors we have within the music division, not to mention the dance and theater riches. Our music division offers degrees in music performance, music production and technology, music education, music management, jazz studies, and even an engineering degree in acoustics. The one binding thread that holds all of these degrees together [for students] is that musicianship is the most important aspect of their entrance into the school, and continues to be the most important aspect during their time in school. My ensemble is filled with students from every major, and they all realize that if they are going to be successful in their various careers, they need to first be outstanding musicians.”

REG: So even the engineering student studying acoustics has to be a proficient musician?

GA: “Yes, some of our best students are engineers. Many go on to work in acoustics in various disciplines like cell phone microphone and speaker placement, and acoustic design for organizations like NASA.”

REG: This must be fairly unique: an engineering program that requires high-level performance proficiency. And the Music Production and Technology degree is in the music school, instead of aligned with Radio and TV in a mass communications department?

GA: “No, actually Music Production and Technology is a department in the Hartt School. It is not The Hartt School of Music; that was an old description. Now the school is simply called The Hartt School, which includes music, theater, and dance. One great aspect to working at the Hartt School is that we have this terrific department that handles all the technical aspects of the recording. Justin Kurtz and Gabe Herman are the faculty members that run the department, and they have produced both of our Naxos recordings. One huge benefit for our students is that they get to help and coproduce all aspects of this recording while being guided by Justin and Gabe.”

REG: So, how did that first recording with Naxos happen? What is involved in getting a band CD like yours to market? And how does one fund such a venture?

GA: “The funding of a project is one of the best parts; it only costs us the people power of the school to record, edit, and master. I did approach Naxos for the first CD, and after hearing the sample recordings, they agreed to put it out. The same thing is true for this CD. I sent them the master and they agreed to release it.”

REG: And how did the Dragon Rhyme CD come about?

GA: “The only real reason that I would want to engage in a recording project, and commit to the hours it takes to produce a recording, is if I thought there was repertoire that deserved a wider audience. With that in mind, this was an easy project to commit to, because I think this repertoire is fantastic. The Chen Yi work Dragon Rhyme came about as a first round commission of the National Wind Ensemble Consortium group, which we premiered in Carnegie Hall. The Higdon Concerto for Soprano Saxophone and Wind Ensemble was a joint commission between the University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and the Hartt School, and we premiered the work with saxophonist Carrie Koffman here at the Hartt School. I do consider myself very lucky to have done this recording with Carrie, whom I consider one of the best musicians I know. I suppose it helped the continuity of the performance that we have been married now for 20 years. Unlike the other two works on this CD, the Weill Violin Concerto has been around for many years, and there are a number of recordings out there. However, after having the chance to perform it with Anton Miller, I realized that his approach to Weill, and to this work in particular, was different from any existing recording. To me it’s much more in the spirit of this strangely twisted and wonderful work.” Early on, Adsit had stated his hope that “we might be able to include some thoughts from either the soloists, composers, or some combination of both.” Obviously Kurt Weill presented a problem, so when we settled on contacting the composers, Adsit gamely suggested that “perhaps I can work with a medium to channel questions to Weill, as well.”

REG: The channeling of questions to Weill would be a remarkable coup, if you could pull it off. If that does not work out, I would be satisfied with some idea of what those qualities were that you felt Anton Miller (associate professor of violin at the Hartt School) brought to the concerto. What was it that captured you regarding the work and performance?

GA: “Weill wrote this during his Berlin years, and in many ways it feels like a piece that is looking completely forward. Almost every aspect of this has a progressive dimension, but still manages to retain a connection to the past. Clearly Stravinsky is in his ear, and at the same time there seem to me to be hints of the Broadway Weill as well. What I was referring to with Anton was the way he was able to completely embrace the manic and rather twisted aspects of this work. Anton is one of those rare artists that can completely transcend the technique and embrace the character like it is part of his own being. We really never let the energy level down throughout the entire recording, and that was very much a purposeful decision by us.” Chen Yi and Jennifer Higdon both proved, not surprisingly, to be more accessible than Weill, and both expressed willingness to participate in the interview. Chen Yi was first. Born in China to professional parents with an interest in Western culture, she seemed destined to be an important exponent of the works of Western composers in her own country until the Cultural Revolution abruptly interrupted her studies. She came to the United States for doctoral studies in the mid 1980s, and has since become an American citizen, and been inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her orchestral work Si Ji (Four Seasons) premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra, was one of the finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. In response to my questions, Chen Yi provided a link to an online interview from 2001 (newmusicon.org/v9n4/v94chen_yi.htm), which provides further background on her remarkable life journey. Typically for this very generous artist, she started with praise for Adsit and his musicians: “I think that Glen and the Hartt School Wind Ensemble have done an excellent job in premiering my Dragon Rhyme, in the sense of color, style, and spirit in the music presented. I attended the rehearsal, and the recording session before that, and the presentation is accurate and passionate, which really speaks for me in my style, language, and spirit.”

REG: I’d love to know more about the connection, which you mentioned in the notes, between Dragon Rhyme (or yourself) and the Beijing Opera.

CY: “As you read from the article, you know that I have done extensive research on Chinese traditional music, and I served as concertmaster in the orchestra of the Beijing Opera Troupe in my home city Guangzhou for eight years during the Cultural Revolution. This was after working as a farmer in the countryside as a teenager: forced labor, as a part of the “reeducation” for intellectuals in China. I got to experience the hardship, and learn the life, the culture, the nature, and the meaning of education and civilization. When I got a chance to study at the conservatory, I learned the Chinese traditional music systematically, from the sound, the style, and the language, to the aesthetics and the philosophy. The Beijing Opera is one of the most popular representatives of the Chinese performing art form. There is a whole set of theories and tradition to study from this art form. Therefore, I carry on this culture deeply and extensively, from pitch material to its development, from instrumental and voice performing technique to their style, from language to aesthetics, from form to structure, and so on. I applied all of these into my composition, written for all different instrumentation. It certainly includes writing for wind ensemble.”

REG: I understand that there is a great significance to the dragon in Chinese culture. Would you explain what role that image plays in your work?

CY: “In Chinese history and tradition, the image of the dragon is auspicious, vivid, and energetic, yet mysterious. It symbolizes the Eastern culture in many ways, including the form of musical language. In my piece Dragon Rhyme, I designed the initial pitch material, which includes the leap of a seventh, the interval used typically in the Beijing opera fiddle, the major instrument used in Beijing opera music. The material has been developed throughout the piece in different shapes and variation forms. In orchestration, I used layers of textures multi-dimensionally. The instrumental colors—from transparent and delicate to angular and strong—develop the atmosphere and the image. To create the desired instrumental sound, I mixed regular wind ensemble instruments with traditional Chinese percussion instruments. “The band didn’t have a Chinese dagu, a traditional big drum with a huge and deep sound membrane and a wooden edge, which the drummer hits loudly and sharply in alternation with the head. Glen and the student musicians in the percussion section found different wooden boards to try out the similar timbre, until it got very close to the authentic sound from the Chinese drum, which is unmistakable.” Adsit added to the drum story, “I asked Chen Yi to describe the sound and she talked about wanting a certain kind of resonance which she was not getting in the wood. I walked over to a pile of trash that was slated for the dumpster and pulled out a wooden piano bench that was missing a leg. I asked the percussionist to try that. Her reaction was immediate, and she said, ‘that’s perfect.’ We still have the piano bench in storage. The label above it says ‘Dragon Rhyme Wooden Drum-Bench.’”

CY: “I was deeply touched when I watched them rehearsing my piece; it was absolutely effective and unforgettable. The cultural exchange and deep communication has started from here. It’s a part of our history and humanity.”

REG: It seems to me that this is an amazingly valuable experience for the students in the ensemble, not just making a recording, but bringing a new work like Dragon Rhyme into the world, in a sense, and doing it with the composer present. What was the experience like?

GA: “I think the process of working with the composer is important for every level of ensemble and age, and I wish that more people would bring in composers and work with them on their music. There is nothing like having the composer present while you are working on their compositions. The process of ushering a work into existence is one of the most thrilling things I do. It’s intimidating to have the composer present, but it also imposes a kind of pressure that I think is healthy. You are right that this is a very powerful experience for the students, and my hope is that they will come to expect this and begin to do the same when they get out into the professional world.” We next heard from Jennifer Higdon. I was experiencing some difficulty sorting out the genesis of the various versions of her Oboe/Soprano Saxophone Concerto, despite having reviewed a recording of the version for oboe and wind ensemble in Fanfare 34:3. And I was curious about the process of converting an orchestral work into a work for an (admittedly advanced) student wind ensemble. So, Adsit invited her into the conversation to explain it. Higdon, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music for her Violin Concerto, and a composer with many irons in the fire, graciously joined in.

JH: “The Oboe Concerto started as a commission from the Minnesota Commissioning Club, for oboist Kathy Greenbank and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. About four years after it was pre-miered by that group, several saxophonists approached me about making a version for soprano saxophone. It turns out the ranges are extraordinarily similar, so I made an arrangement for soprano sax and orchestra. Very little had to be changed. “That version was premiered at the Cabrillo Festival. Not long after that premiere, Michael Haithcock from the University of Michigan contacted me about the possibility of making an arrangement of the orchestra score for wind ensemble. I did the arrangement myself, as I’m particularly picky about colors and orchestration in my works. I found it extremely challenging, as string writing and its respective gestures don’t necessarily transfer easily to winds and brass. After doing an initial draft, the University of Michigan rehearsed the work, recorded the rehearsals, and I took a listen—via e-mail, through mp3s—and made adjustments to the music. It’s the first time that I’ve attempted rehearsals and adjustments while not being present; this was necessary because I was in the middle of a year of residencies, premieres, and recordings that kept me on the road non-stop. My listening sessions were done during weeks where I was recording my work, The Singing Rooms, with the Atlanta Symphony and attending the premiere of my Violin Concerto in Indianapolis. “I made no changes in the music in terms of this concerto being performed by students at these universities. What they played is the same thing the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra played at the premiere of the Oboe Concerto. And I think they did a marvelous job: a real testament to the high level of student and faculty. I couldn’t be more pleased with the recording.”

REG: I have not heard the orchestral version of the oboe concerto, but have listened to the orchestral version of its soprano saxophone incarnation on the NPR website. It is interesting hearing some of the choices you made, and remarkable how much of the character of the original you were able to retain. Am I right in assuming, though, that writing Road Stories, which was for wind ensemble from the start, was an easier process—or at least less demanding by not requiring changes to the way that you originally heard the work in your head? I listened to the recordings that Hartt School has posted on their website (harttweb.hartford.edu), and found the work immediately engaging, not least because it seemed so idiomatic. And I suspect you made no accommodations for students in the more demanding passages of this work, either. 

JH: “Ironically, it was a little harder for me to do, because I’m used to writing for orchestra, and with the wind ensemble combination of instruments, I had to think a lot more about balance, in much different ways. Even though I started music playing in a wind ensemble, my composing years have been so filled with string instruments that I needed to re-examine my understanding of acoustical balances. I also worried a lot about the piece being idiomatic, so I’m relieved to hear you say it sounds so. I’m so close to the piece, that it’s hard for me to gauge that effectively.”

REG: You were the 2010 Hartt School Unclaimed Property Composer in Residence. Would you be willing to share your memories of that experience: what it involved and how you feel it was valuable to you as a composer?

JH: “I had a fantastic time at Hartt working with the wind ensemble and doing a master class with performers who came in and did several of my works; we also did a composition master class. I find meeting young students involved in the process of learning about music inspiring, and I often come away feeling like I’ve learned something, and in fact, that’s frequently the case. The wind ensemble made a particular impression on me, just because the level of playing was so high. The open, eager expressions of the students remind me of being a student myself—which doesn’t seem that long ago, but in truth is—and reminds me of that thrill of new worlds opening up for discovery. I found school overwhelming and also inspiring; that comes back whenever I go into a school.” It was becoming clear that premieres, residencies, and commissioning were important ingredients in the excellence not only of the new works on this disc, but of the Hartt School program in general. I asked Glen Adsit about it.

 GA: “We are very lucky that we have been able to participate in a number of consortiums and premieres in the 12 years that I have been at the school. This almost always results in a mini-residency by the composer to work on their piece, and that is a huge bonus for everyone in the school. We also have our Unclaimed Property Composer in Residence that has brought some of the most distinguished American composers to the school for an intensive focus on their music.” REG: The list on your website of composers who have participated is pretty remarkable. How did the program come about? What sort of interactions are there? Do the residents work just on the performance of their piece, or do they meet with student composers, give master classes, etc.?

GA: “The Unclaimed Property Composer in Residence was started in 2004 with Michael Daugherty and has included Joseph Schwantner, Susan Botti, Bright Sheng, Michael Colgrass, William Bolcom, Jennifer Higdon, and John Corigliano. The composer is usually selected by me or my orchestral colleague at Hartt School with specific repertoire in mind. This residency is unique in that there are usually three performances of the composer’s works: a faculty evening performance, a contemporary ensemble performance, and a large ensemble performance. “Last year we had John Corigliano in residence and most of the music portion of the school got to participate in his residency. The symphony band, wind ensemble, orchestra, choirs, and faculty all prepared and performed works by him. And in every case all of the performers were coached by him. Obviously this is a huge experience for everyone involved. It does not matter if you are a student or one of our highly accomplished faculty members, when you are coached by someone of John’s stature in the world, it’s a big deal. I really like the idea of the entire school coming together for a period of time to intensely focus on the music of one composer. That kind of immersion offers a unique opportunity to learn about a composer in a way that will not happen very many times in their professional lives. “In addition, the composers have all given master classes for the young composers at the school. Now that the students have come to expect a residency of this kind, they have begun to prepare works in the hope that they could get a coaching. What I enjoy the most, as someone who sets these up, is to see the spin-off projects and opportunities that the students create, knowing that a particular composer is coming. This happened last year when our bassoon quartet prepared John’s piece and we ended up putting it on a concert.”

 REG: Oh, and why “Unclaimed Property”?

GA: “The seed money for the Unclaimed Property Composer in Residence is donated for this purpose each year by a dear friend named Susan Brake. The program name was coined by Susan. Years ago, her mom died, and she was in charge of closing her estate. As sometimes happens as we age, her mom simply stopped cashing checks. Susan had to clear this up. So the title is in part thanks to her mom’s support, and also a way to acknowledge her mother’s legacy without naming the program after her directly. Her mom, by the way, was one of the first female scientists at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque.”

 REG: I would also be interested in hearing more about the National Wind Ensemble Consortium Group commissioning program, and how Dragon Rhyme came to be chosen.

GA: “Many years ago I realized that if we wanted to be taken seriously as a medium and attract the best composers to write for our ensemble, we needed to be competitive with those professional organizations that are also commissioning composers. That translated into time and money. We needed to raise the kind of funds necessary to compete with other organizations, and we needed to be patient because the best composers are busy and booked. With this in mind, I started the NWECG and got over 50 groups to commit to the organization. The membership submits names of possible composers, and the board of directors ultimately selects the composers to be commissioned. Chen Yi was one of the composers the group chose in the first round.”

 REG: What are the criteria for selection, if I may ask? And how many composers are competing for how many commissions? Who are the 50? And how do you choose who gets to do the premieres and recordings?

GA: “The 50-some groups are mostly college bands, with a few professional bands like the Dallas Wind Symphony and a couple of military bands thrown in. The main criteria and mission is to commission the world’s finest composers who have not significantly contributed to the wind ensemble repertoire. The composers actually don’t compete, as they don’t know they are being considered until I make contact with them. Our board members select the composers on our list in priority order, based on input from the general membership. I then call the targeted composers and see if they are interested in the commission. After the commission has begun and the details of the finish date are solidified, I try and set up a workshop premiere with one of the members. “The first round resulted in three works, and I worked hard to make sure that the premieres were spread around. Mike Haithcock at the University of Michigan premiered Susan Botti’s Terra Cruda, Jerry Junkin at the University of Texas-Austin premiered Higdon’s Road Stories, and the Hartt School premiered Dragon Rhyme. Usually there is a logical choice, as the composer has a connection to a particular institution. In Chen Yi’s case, we did the premiere because she was in residency with us earlier in the year, workshopping the piece, and we had a performance set up in Carnegie Hall for the premiere. Susan Botti, was a faculty member at Michigan before leaving for the East Coast, and therefore Michigan seemed like the logical choice. With Jennifer Higdon, Jerry Junkin volunteered to usher her work into existence. Given that he is a leader in our profession and has one of the finest wind ensembles in the country, it made sense to have him premiere the work.”

REG: Has the school benefitted from all this? Do students come to the Hartt School, for instance, because they know they will get to work not only with a top-notch faculty, but with some of the best practitioners in the field?

GA: “Yes, the Hartt School brand has been created over the past decade as a place that is interested in new music and new ways of presentation. I think that we get highly talented students at the school in large part because of our internationally known faculty, but it does not hurt that they can work with these extraordinary composers, or that they can get on Naxos and listen to a CD from the Hartt School, or see a performance live at Carnegie Hall or at the two College Band Director’s national conventions where we have performed.” The two composers of commissioned works on this new Naxos CD weighed in on the value of commissioning programs as well. Jennifer Higdon first, “I think that without groups like the NWECG and the Minnesota Commissioning Club many works would not have been created. These groups make it possible for composers to spend the majority of their time writing music, and working to make the pieces better and better. It’s one of most valuable ingredients in the creation of new art: the time to invest in exploring musical ideas. Writing music is hard, as creating anything from nothing is, but a composer can spend more time going deeply into what’s being written when time is available. The commissioners make that possible. Without them, it would not be possible at all. For this, I am profoundly grateful.” Chen Yi also commented, “It’s a great privilege to be the first grant recipient of the commissioning project held by the National Wind Ensemble Consortium Group. The NWECG project has the great vision and excellent quality in promoting American new music in our society, with the absolutely strong and well-organized performing forces in a wide range of geographic and cultural coverage. The collection of commissioned works will definitely contribute to the repertoire, which will benefit the society, the culture, and people around the world. It will help people from different cultural backgrounds to understand each other better when they share and appreciate the inspiring music, for the peace of our future world. The NWECG project is meaningful and powerful.” Glen Adsit got the final word. “I really enjoy the process of shepherding a new composition into existence and feel privileged whenever I get to perform a new work. I think it’s important for all of us who call ourselves musicians to be engaged in commissioning, working with, and supporting living composers. It’s our duty to continue the art form and make sure they and we remain relevant in society.” 

HIGDON Soprano Saxophone Concerto. WEILL Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra. CHEN

Dragon Rhyme • Glen Adsit, cond; Carrie Koffman (s sax); Anton Miller (vn); Hartt School Wind

Ensemble • NAXOS 8.572889 (56:44)

 

Readers who have heard the Hartt School Wind Ensemble’s first release Passaggi (Naxos) should need no further encouragement to acquire this CD. Dragon Rhyme is every bit as well played and recorded as its predecessor, presents equally compelling music, and showcases soloists who are similarly talented.

The youthful Kurt Weill Violin Concerto will certainly be the program’s most familiar piece. Completed soon after his studies with Busoni, it incorporates elements of Stravinskian neoclassicism—the Symphony of Wind Instruments and L’Histoire du Soldat come to mind—combined with a germinal version of Weill’s bittersweet sardonic voice. This latter is especially evident in the central, emotionally labile Notturno movement. Glen Adsit leads a very stylish, virtuoso performance, marvelously ambiguous at times, and deliciously aggressive at others. Anton Miller, the violin soloist, is forcefully insistent, playful, or wistfully nostalgic according to the various demands of the work. An associate professor of violin at the Hartt School, Miller is easily the peer of the best of the soloists who have tackled this challenging work. Adsil and Miller take a warmer, more romantic approach than Atherton and Liddell in the classic 1976 account on DG: more like the 1997 Mauceri/Juillet account on Decca, but with much more fire. While the DG artists’ emphasis on Weill’s edgy modernity is arguably the normative approach, the more lyric—and at the end, wonderfully frenetic—approach of the Harrt team is equally convincing. Adsit shapes the wild mood swings of the three-part second movement compellingly, but what truly amazes is how the student ensemble holds up to comparison with the esteemed London Sinfonietta and betters the performance of Mauceri’s professional ensemble.

The Hartt School’s commissioning activities provided the remainder of the program. Some readers may have noted my ambivalent response to Jennifer Higdon’s earliest—and most popular—orchestral works. I have a similar response to many neoromantic composers. Her recent compositions impress me more though, and that includes the 2005 Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra upon which this arrangement for soprano saxophone and winds is based. The work has a characteristic free, improvisatory flow, with a sensuously Coplandesque opening which seamlessly transitions into more sinister and jazzily energetic realms. There are moments of angst and sly humor before the return to the simplicity of the beginning, colored now with the melancholy of experience. Higdon’s always clear talent for melody aligns with her growing command of form to engage heart and mind. Adsit’s performance is as impressive as Haithcock’s of the oboe/band combination with the University of Michigan Symphonic Band (Equilibrium–Fanfare 34:3) and the combination of soprano saxophone with wind ensemble is particularly gratifying. Soloist Carrie Koffman plays with melting tone and touching sensitivity

If Chen Yi is less well known, she is undeservedly so. Her work is notable for its immaculate craftsmanship, skillful and unhackneyed melding of Chinese and Western influences, and a huge amount of energy aligned with an appealing delicacy of expression. All those qualities, including the delicacy, are evident in the first movement of Dragon Rhyme, with its bells, and spare textures with captivating woodwind solos, though even here intensity is the underlying characteristic. The second movement awakens with a roar, and the power of the dragon is vividly represented in a peroration of brass and Chinese drums which at times sounds like percussive moments in Adams’s Nixon in China. In the case of Chen Yi, though, the sourcing is first-hand, and here specifically includes her experiences while a violinist in the Beijing Opera. The Hartt School percussionists are particularly impressive, and all acquit themselves well in the exposure of Chen Yi’s often transparent scoring. In fact, the playing of the Hartt School Wind Ensemble throughout is outstanding, and on the evidence of his two Naxos CDs, Adsit is simply one of the finest conductors leading a wind ensemble today. The recording, done by staff and students of the Hartt School Music Production and Technology Department, is thoroughly professional, though I would perhaps quibble about the normalization of volumes among the three works. No matter: urgently recommended to all wind-ensemblefans.

Ronald E. Grames 

HIGDON Soprano Saxophone Concerto. WEILL Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra. CHEN

Dragon Rhyme • Glen Adsit, cond; Carrie Koffman (s sax); Anton Miller (vn); Hartt School Wind

Ensemble • NAXOS 8.572889 (56:44)

The present CD was a particularly welcome arrival from Fanfare central—unlike some reviewers for this magazine, I seldom request particular CDs to review, Pictures at an Exhibition excepted, so I never know what to expect when I open a parcel. I have heard little of Jennifer Higdon’s music to date, but what I have heard has whetted my appetite for more. The disc also includes an old friend, Weill’s Concerto for Violin and Winds, and a completely new and welcome discovery, the music of Chen Yi. Higdon’s Soprano Saxophone Concerto is an arrangement of her oboe concerto. similar range of the two instruments, a number of composers (including Hilary Tann in her Shakkei) have made a single work do double duty for these two instruments. Saxophonists, always looking for new repertory for their instrument, approached Higdon to make this arrangement, which she was glad to do, given her positive estimation of the power and beauty of the saxophone. The opening of the work is characterized by gently flowing lines in the solo part that are underpinned by a beautiful sequence of chords in the ensemble. Not long afterwards, rhythmic activity increases and the colorful writing flowers into full bloom. A subcurrent of modality runs throughout the musical canvas, and the parts of the various instruments, including that of the solo saxophone, intertwine in clever and creative ways. The solo part is virtuosic to a degree, but the virtuosity is never on display for its own sake. I can guess that the work is as rewarding to play as it is to listen to, and Carrie Koffman’s saxophone playing is suave, subtly nuanced, and technically secure in its every gesture. The Hindemithian Concerto for Violin and Wind Orchestra of Kurt Weill has received enough performances and recordings to put it at least almost in the standard repertory category. In the LP era, it appeared on a number of labels, including Candide, Westminster, MCA, MHS, French RCA, and DGG, the latter with Nona Lidell and David Atherton, and likely the best known of the bunch, judging by the number of copies that came through my hands during my years as a record dealer. On CD, there are at least 15 currently available versions. Consequently, it is likely that most readers interested in this work already own it, but the present recording is at least as excitingly and brilliantly rendered as any of the several recordings of the work that I’ve previously heard. Violinist Anton Miller plays with accuracy and flair to bring the work off in splendid fashion, and is ably supported by the Hartt School Wind Ensemble under the direction of Glen Adsit. Indeed these performers have brought to my mind a new appreciation for this work of a composer that I find uneven in the quality of his output.

Chen Yi’s Dragon Rhyme is a very recent (2010) work in two movements, commissioned by the National Wind Ensemble Consortium Group and premiered by the forces who present it here. The first movement, “Mysteriously-harmoniously,” evokes an aura of mystery through trills and fluttering in the upper woodwinds, and these continue in various ways throughout the work, sometimes underlying other solo instruments, the brass choir, and so on. The second movement, “Energetically,” is based upon the same material (intervals drawn from those typical of Chinese opera), but uses them in more vivid fashion. The image of a dragon is evoked through layering and dynamic textures, although hearing the piece unaware of its title or connotations, one might well come up with other mental images. Nevertheless, it’s a very exciting and dramatic work, and I would be surprised if Dragon Rhyme does not enter the band repertory. As in the other pieces, Glen Adsit and his forces brilliantly bring the music to life in stunning recorded sound. My only complaint is that the review copy hung up in the last band in both of my CD players, a problem I trust not universal in the production of this otherwise splendid CD. Very highly recommended.

David DeBoor Canfield

 

You can purchase this recording on itunes with the link below.

Passaggi - Glen Adsit, Hartt School Wind Ensemble, Joseph Alessi & Benjamin Toth

Ira Novoselsky
BandWorldJuly 2009

A pair of well established soloists are featured with an excellent wind ensemble in this addition to the Naxos Wind Band Classics series. Passaggi (Stephen Michael Gryc) is a three movement trombone concerto and the title is Italian for passages. The passages can be thought of as the growth and maturation of the soloist while taking a musical journey through this twenty-two minute concerto. The journey for the percussionist and wind ensemble is via Tales from the Center of the Earth (Nebojsa Zivkovic). This work offers challenges for the multi-percussionist who must also tackle some impressive marimba writing; the wind ensemble must be up to the demands as well. The recording opens with Recoil by Joseph Schwantner, an amplified piano and four very active percussionists work in partnership with the forces of the wind ensemble. The remaining two compositions are both lullabies and serve as ideal contrast from the lengthier pieces; Leslie Bassett’s Lullaby for Kirsten and Joseph Turrin’s Lullaby for Noah.