‘ARTIFACTS’ = Works by BRIGHT SHENG, JOEL PUCKETT, MICHAEL DAUGHERTY, WM. BOLCOM – U. of Mich. Sym. Band – Equilibrium Records

by | May 7, 2012 | Classical CD Reviews

‘ARTIFACTS’ = BRIGHT SHENG: Shanghai Overture; JOEL PUCKETT: The Shadow of Sirius; MICHAEL DAUGHERTY: Lost  Vegas; KRISTIN KUSTER: Two Jades; WILLIAM BOLCOM: Graceful Ghost Rag; Concerto Grosso – U. of Michigan Symphonic Band/Amy Porter, flute/Xiang Gao, violin/Donald Sinta Sax Quartet/Michael Haithcock – (2 CDs, incl. interviews with Bright Sheng, Joel Puckett, Michael Daugherty, Kristin Kuster, William Bolcom) Equilibrium Records EQ 100, 140:44 [Distr. by Albany] *****:
The University of Michigan music department has been one of the finest in the country for several decades now, producing many conductors, performers and composers of renown. Their bands, including the Symphony Band are one of the main reasons to recognize the whole program for one of highest quality.
This wonderful collection of recent works for band is a product of the ensemble’s 2011 tour to China. The title, Artifacts, refers not only to the various cultural treasures and – literally – artifacts from centuries ago that the musicians got to see and learn about first hand, but also to the use of these pieces to symbolize the tour itself.
Four of these works were commissioned, in fact, for the tour. The first, the Shanghai Overture by Bright Sheng, is a clear, crisp and colorful work that evokes the sounds and culture of Sheng’s native China. As Sheng explains, he sought to create a fairly neo-Classical work that evokes Chinese folk music (most overtly noted in the opening brass chorales and echoed in the scintillating wind writing) Sheng cites Stravinsky as his inspiration for this idea, such as the suite Pulcinella, which evoked Pergolesi. This is a fairly compact work and – like all of Sheng’s work – is very colorful and fascinating to listen to.
I was particularly taken with The Shadow of Sirius by Joel Puckett, a new name for me. Puckett, an Atlanta native, is a graduate of the University of Michigan, where he earned a doctorate in composition, studying with Bright Sheng, William Bolcom and Michael Daugherty; so his connections to the rest of this collection are clear. The Shadow of Sirius is subtitled, Concerto for Flute, Flute Choir and Wind Ensemble.  This three movement work is simply wonderful and has been performed over thirty times since its 2009 composition, around the country and has become Puckett’s break through work. The composer indicates that the source of his inspiration is the book of the same name by philosopher and poet W.S. Merwin.  Merwin, in turn, explains that the bright star, Sirius, is actually an entire star system. The music, like the astronomical phenomenon of the analogy, contains a density within a clarity, polyphony within the simple and – most importantly – is a beautiful and seemingly spiritual work. The three movements are named after the Merwin poems that provided Puckett with his inspiration: The Nomad Flute, Eye of Shadow and Into the Cloud. The writing is spectacular and ethereal and soloist Amy Porter – a member of the Michigan flute faculty and a Juilliard graduate – is fantastic!
Michael Daugherty is one of America’s best known composers and has a trademark catchy pop-influenced style that is quite recognizable. Lost Vegas was written for the University of Michigan bands and is intended to pay homage to the Las Vegas of decades past with glaring marquees and shows by such iconic figures as Elvis and Sinatra. The work is written in three movements, played without pause. The first, “Viva”, is based on a book about the architecture of the “strip” by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Bowman and evokes the gaudy grandeur of the view. “Mirage” is a musical depiction of the drive through the desert on the way to Vegas and depicts the sense of the vast, somewhat dangerous, desert and the suddenness of the neon glow. “Fever” is a full out swing-jazz tribute to the stars of the fifties who helped to define Vegas for what it was. This is another of Daugherty’s very likeable scores with a clear sense of what it seeks to depict and it sounds like it would be great fun to play, not just to listen to.
The other work written for the UM China tour is Two Jades for violin and wind ensemble by Colorado native Kristin Kuster. Kuster, who is also on the composition faculty at the University of Michigan, has a very buoyant and engaging style. She has written works in nearly every medium including wind ensemble. The combination of violin and band is certainly atypical but it works well. The reference in the title is specifically that of two jade objects that Kuster noticed in the Chinese Art wing of the UM Museum of Art; a bi (disc) and cong (an externally square tube) whose original functions are not clear. Kuster’s work seeks to evoke a sense of “two-ness” such as earth and sky, life and death, mother and father and was written shortly after the death of her father. The work is a single movement but with a familiar fast-slow-fast pattern. This is a very fine work that sounds vaguely Chinese in places but succeeds for its ethereal qualities and how blended the violin seems within this wind-driven texture. Soloist Xiang Gao is a wonderful player who has also collaborated with Yo-Yo Ma in the “China Magpie” ensemble.
William Bolcom is another of America’s most esteemed and well known composer but also a famous name at the University of Michigan, having taught there for thirty five years, just retiring from teaching in 2008. His works cover every possible genre and Bolcom is a multiple award-winning composer. This collection includes two of his better known works for winds. The Graceful Ghost Rag was originally written as a piano piece to commemorate his father. Particularly, this work draws upon the music of nineteenth century Creole composer Louis Chauvin, who in turn inspired Scott Joplin. Bolcom’s work is a rag that moves coyly through a number a related ‘flat’ keys and evokes the classical rag, like Joplin, but does not quote the works in any way. Graceful Ghost Rag was rescored for band and is voiced to resemble some of the pit bands from the ragtime era.
Bolcom’s Concerto Grosso for saxophone quartet and band was written for the PRISM Saxophone Quartet and is structured just like the Baroque concerto grosso, where the solo quartet or concerto grosso dialogues back and forth in similar materials with the larger ensemble, or ripieno. This band version is a transcription of the orchestral version that Bolcom had written in 2000. The four movements are all immensely entertaining to listen to but require a very good quartet of four “soloistic” players. The first movement, “Lively” has some nice blues elements to it, the second, “Song Without Words” is a very melodic larghetto and the subsequent “Valse” sounds very French. Bolcom concludes the work with a “Badinerie”, after a style by Bach, but – in this case – there is a healthy dose of bebop and R&B rhythms. Much of Bolcom’s music is infused with a pops-influenced eclecticism, which I have always enjoyed. The Donald Sinta Saxophone Quartet consists of Daniel Hawthorne-Foss, Joseph Girard, Dan Graser and Zach Stern and they really are superb musicians!
The interviews that are included in these discs are all quite interesting and reveal some of the personalities of the composers. Bill Bolcom, for just one example, has a wonderfully engaging personality and I have had the pleasure of communicating with him myself. I cannot imagine any present or former band member not enjoying these thoroughly engaging works in such fine performances. The UM Symphony Band plays magnificently under director Michael Haithcock, the 2011 Distinguished Service to Music Medal winner given by band fraternity Kappa Kappa Psi. The sound engineering is excellent and these are all terrific pieces!  Highly recommended!
—Daniel Coombs